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Office 2003's new tricks a challenge for admins

Office 2003 has a lot of nifty new features. Are they worth the upgrade? The answer is yes and no. Yes, if you're looking for greater collaboration and an interface that can link users to various business processes. No, if you don't have staffers who can write applications in XML, set up SharePoint servers and prepare other servers for digital rights management.

Desktop decisions:
A special report

Second of three parts.

For Windows administrators, making the decision to refresh enterprise desktops was once relatively easy. An upgrade brought end users new versions of Word and Excel, among other applications, each with a new look and some features that users probably didn't need.

But in looking for new ways to bring value to its Office software suite, Microsoft has transformed it -- changing it from a productivity software package to an interface that links users to business processes.

Today, managers have to decide whether they merely want to upgrade applications or buy into a heady new concept about what a desktop can or should be.

An upgrade to Office 2003 is also more work. The IT staff must intervene -- application developers must write applications in XML; IT administrators must set up SharePoint servers and prepare other servers for digital rights management.

"The person who does all the work for users to get value has shifted to [information systems]," said Michael Silver, an analyst at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc. "If IS has to do something to get value out of a product, there is a longer lead time."

Several changes make Office 2003 notable. For one thing, there is the new Outlook 2003 client and its much-improved interface, which has generated a lot of praise from the Windows community. There is digital rights management integration, which lets users assign an account and password to a document.

This feature may not seem important to customers who are just e-mailing documents to one another behind a company firewall, but if an organization has a lot of remote employees, that extra level of security can be useful, said John Robbins, an application developer and co-founder of Wintellect Inc., a Knoxville, Tenn., software company.

With this in mind, IT administrators have to pause to consider whether they want to commit to what could become a complicated Microsoft architecture that ties their applications and desktops together. For many, there is growing angst about just how these new features will fit into their organizations, said Mike Gotta, an analyst at Meta Group, Stamford, Conn.

Whether an enterprise will or won't buy into this new vision of Office 2003 as a collaborative tool will probably depend on the nature of its business. There will always be customers who have an application in mind that can exploit one of the new Office 2003 features right away.

Though insurer UnumProvident Corp. is not considering deploying Office 2003 until mid-2004, IT executives are already mulling over some ideas.

"Digital rights management is one of our interests, particularly if we can have e-mail messages that can't be changed or monitored," said Randy Robinson, vice president of IT at UnumProvident, Chattanooga, Tenn.

Other IT executives are not in such a hurry. "We are on Office 2000, and we will probably stay there until doomsday," said Scott Saunders, director of systems technology at Paxson Communications Corp., a West Palm Beach, Fla.-based broadcasting company. "There is no particular reason to upgrade when our users [just] type messages and do spreadsheets."

Paxson is a big booster of Citrix System Inc.'s thin client architecture, and Paxson plans to upgrade all thin client hosts to Windows Server 2003 next year. Saunders said he expects that, as technologies based on XML and Microsoft's .NET become more entrenched, it's going to become harder for other applications to "cohabitate."

Gartner's Silver said his clients probably won't move quickly to Office 2003 because the matter of upgrading is rarely a trivial task. New versions of the software often break other applications in the enterprise, and there is a lot of testing and fixing that always needs to be done with such a move.

"We see a 12- to 18-month lag time between when we see a new product ship and ... the time we see a 10% installed base," Silver said. "I expect that, by the end of 2004, we will still be in the single digits in terms of installed base."


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