NEW YORK -- Microsoft kicked off its biggest product launch in years today with a message specially crafted to woo the enterprise IT community: it's not just about the features anymore, it's how the software can be more usable and integrated with other processes.
It was a busy day for the software company, which formally introduced its Office 2003 suite, practically all of which was already available to everyone but retail customers. Bill Gates, Microsoft's chairman and chief software architect, said the launch was the largest single-day product rollout in Microsoft's history.
While past Office launches have often focused on individual "cool new features," today's event -- in deference to a weak economy -- emphasized return on investment.
The company's push toward collaborative features could give some customers new reasons to upgrade to Office 2003. Many enterprises are still on much older versions of the desktop software, or on multiple versions of it.
Today, Gates demonstrated feature after feature in the Office suite, focusing on those with information-sharing and collaborative capabilities. He pounded home a message of cost savings achieved by early adopters, and by Microsoft as well. Gates said that the suite, used in a collaborative capacity, can save an individual end user two hours per week, and that customers would see a "solution" payback after eight months.
The change in message isn't lost on longtime Microsoft watchers.
"For the first time, I'm seeing Microsoft make a real organizational push, looking at IT gains from a quantitative standpoint," said Jonathan Zuck, president of the Association for Competitive Technology, a Washington D.C.-based educational and advocacy group for the technology industry. "It's the first time it felt the need to make that pitch, and the first time it could legitimately make that pitch."
Zuck said that the desktop productivity suite sets the bar higher for any Linux competitor, though it would be a mistake for Microsoft to think that Office 2003 would eliminate any competition.
Jeff Raikes, Microsoft's group vice president of productivity and business services, said there were about 500,000 beta copies of Office 2003 during the trial phase. He said the software benefited from the use of its Watson technology, a software reliability feature that helps dramatically cut the number of software bugs in a product.
Using Watson, Microsoft is better able to catch bugs in betas because the application lets users send their findings directly to the Microsoft staff developer's e-mail inbox so the problem can be addressed.
Raikes said he wasn't sure how quickly customers would "take up" use of Office 2003, but he predicted that it would be faster than adoption of Office XP, the software's previous version.
Customers may not rush en masse to install Office 2003, but there may be some elements of the suite that do see quick success. A handful of Microsoft partners at the event said that although their customers weren't necessarily asking for the entire upgrade, they were interested in using Project Server 2003, one component of Office 2003, as soon as possible.
"This is a line-of-business application that has a different story," said Brian Kennemer, project specialist at Quantum, an Englewood, Colo., systems integrator that specializes in project management technologies.
"Lots of companies aren't installing Office 2003, but they are champing at the bit to install Project Server 2003," Kennemer said. "The software helps them identify, in a tight labor market, what resources they have."
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