New Microsoft Office Suite Sparks Modest Interest

The next version of Microsoft Corp.'s Office suite will leave millions of Windows users behind when it arrives next year, because it won't be able to run on Windows 95. Some 65 million copies of that operating system may still be in use then, according to one estimate.

However, corporate users and analysts last week seemed less worried about that incompatibility than about the prospect of upgrading from Office 2000 so soon. They also praised the fact that the new suite - called Office 10 - will keep file compatibility for all applications. Office 10 will offer expanded XML support, built-in speech recognition, some user-interface enhancements and new Web-based group collaboration features.

Rick Nolle, vice president of systems at Reinsurance Group of America Inc. in Chesterfield, Mo., said he's unimpressed with the features list. "We'll have to balance the urge to jump forward with the financial considerations of another upgrade so soon [after Office 2000]," said Nolle.

Jim Prevo, vice president and CIO at Green Mountain Coffee Inc. in Waterbury, Vt., said his company experienced file compatibility problems when it continued to use Office 95 after Microsoft changed the file formats in Office 97. Green Mountain has since decided to roll out Office 2000.

"Our main reason to upgrade to Office 2000 was file compatibility. We really didn't use a lot of the new features," said Prevo. He added that if Office 10 supports the same file formats as Office 2000, he won't do a wholesale upgrade of his company's desktops but will instead let the new suite enter on new machines in a rolling upgrade.

While Office 10 won't break file compatibility, it may cause other compatibility problems. To improve the installation procedure, Microsoft won't offer support for Windows 95. By the time Office 10 ships in the first half of next year, the "vast majority" of users will be on Windows 98, Windows NT 4.0 or later operating systems, a Microsoft spokesman said.

But, analysts said, a huge number of Windows users will be left out in the cold. "There will be a lot of Windows 95 still around in 2001," said Al Gillen, an analyst at International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass. But, he said, companies that are still on Windows 95 are likely to stick with older versions of Office, too.

Not Rushing to Upgrade

Despite their doubts about whether Office 10 will be worth the upgrade, few users are considering a switching to alternative products.

"The various [Office] applications integrate well. Our users are trained and comfortable with those tools," said Buddy Fiume, vice president of enterprise technology at Nabisco Holdings Corp. in Parsippany, N.J. "They work well, and I see no reason to consider alternative products at this time."

Microsoft competitors Corel Corp. and Lotus Development Corp. "are not exactly burning down the road," said Chris Le Tocq, an analyst at Gartner Group Inc. in Stamford, Conn. But new players are offering free productivity suites with support for Office file formats, and some users said they might consider them if Microsoft's pricing for Office 10 is too high.

Microsoft hasn't yet revealed pricing for the suite.

Nolle said he has assigned a review of the effects of a potential upgrade. As a result, he added, he may soon advise his users to run Sun Microsystems Inc.'s StarOffice at home to save money. "Microsoft requires purchasing a separate license for each PC," said Nolle. "If a user does 95% of his word processing at work, maybe StarOffice makes sense for home. It's free and file-compatible."

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