Once there was the word processor, the spreadsheet and the desktop database. In 2003 there is the Office productivity suite, or in Microsoft's case, the Office System.
The Office System beta 2 kit 2003 package contains no fewer than 13 CD-ROM disks, which at first made me wonder how Microsoft had managed to bloat the new version to that extent (Office XP still fits on a single CD).
Broken down into its component parts, however, Office System doesn't seem quite so swollen: Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Access 2003 are on one disk, with Outlook 2003 plus Business Contact Manager now on its own CD.
Publisher and Frontpage 2003 are on separate disks, ditto InfoPath 2003 (code name "Xdocs") — that's a new addition for creating dynamic XML-based forms for information gathering and sharing.
Also in the Office beta is the OneNote 2003 note-taking program, Microsoft's answer to the perennial loose-leaf and stick-it notes chaos that buries information on most office workers' desks.
Microsoft's selling point for Office System is corporate collaboration. Data and business processes should be exposed through the open standard XML, rather than being locked away in separate applications and requiring cumbersome conversions with the risk of formatting loss and corruption.
To that end, the beta 2 Office System kit comes with Exchange, Sharepoint Portal and Windows 2003 Server enterprise edition to fully unlock the "teaming" capabilities that Microsoft reckons will propel business information processing to new heights.
If from the above you deduce that many of the changes in the new version of Office are geared towards enterprise-level installations, you'd be right. SMEs who cannot justify the cost installing Windows Server and adjunct applications will probably think twice before upgrading from older versions of Microsoft Office.
A very superficial test run of Office 2003 applications revealed that plenty of polish has been applied to the different components.
Word has a nice new thumbnail and reading mode, and the interface is less cluttered than in Office XP. The new Research button that gives access to installed reference programs (in my case, only the Office thesauruses) is great for journalists lost for words.
Help functionality has also been better integrated into the different applications, with a direct link to Microsoft's searchable knowledge base on the internet.
I was disappointed to see that Outlook is still a weaker IMAP email client than Outlook Express — it still forces you to use personal storage files (PSTs) to store messages and there's no way to store IMAP folders on the server unlike Outlook Express.
The Business Contacts Manager in Outlook is the old Journal on steroids and allows internet integration with third-party service provider websites. It keeps track of messages, documents and other items, and looks like a potentially very useful business tool.
However, the new favourite application is OneNote, with its free-form document creation. You can drag-and-drop elements from other Office documents and web pages and add manually drawn objects plus text areas, all in different layers that can be moved around at will. It's designed primarily with Microsoft's Tablet PC in mind, but works great with normal mouse- and keyboard-driven desktops too. My vote is on making OneNote the standard interface for the entire Office System.
More the pity, then, that Microsoft won't be including OneNote in any of the final Office editions.