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Desktop expert offers unvarnished view of Office 2003

On Oct. 21, Microsoft will officially launch its newest client platform: Office 2003.'s Windows desktop deployment expert, Jerry Honeycutt, has already combed through the features and pondered many of the issues that might matter to any IT administrator considering making the leap to this new desktop system. In an attempt to cut through the marketing fog, Honeycutt offers feedback based on his initial experience with Office 2003, and provides some highlights that may make Office 2003 a worthwhile upgrade.

Specifically, what new deployment features should make an IT administrator's life easier?
I mentioned local installation sources. Specifically, the problem is this: When deploying Office XP and Office 2000, there is a link between the code on the client and the server. Versions of the packages on the client and the server had to match. This made deployment of service packs and hotfixes difficult.

For example, if you upgrade an Office XP distribution point to a particular service pack, a client computer running Office XP without the service pack couldn't use the distribution point to repair itself. This is a no-go for mobile users because they were disconnected from the server and had no access to source files. With Office 2003, you can install source files locally. So mobile users automatically use a local copy of the source files, and the link between the client and server is mitigated. Do IT administrators need to learn new skills to deploy Office 2003?
That's always the scariest thought when people hear a new version of Office is coming. But the last time Microsoft made a big change in the Office Resource Kit tools was the upgrade from Office 97 to Office 2000.

For this upgrade, everything administrators learned about deploying Office XP transfers to Office 2003 intact. If they're able to customize and deploy Office XP, they're more than able to pick up Office 2003 and deploy it without retraining. For example, they still use Custom Installation Wizard, Office Profile Wizard, and so on to customize Office 2003 for deployment. There are a few additions to the deployment capabilities, such as local installation sources, and they can learn more about those at the Office Resource Kit Web site. Is it worth the cost and effort to go from Office XP to Office 2003?
Licensing costs are a small part of a decision like this. What it really boils down to is how much Office 2003 is going to cost to deploy (planning, testing, training, and so on) versus how much money it's going to save the company.

For an enterprise that wants to take advantage of XML and the new business process features, that's probably a huge reason to upgrade. If it were my enterprise, I'd put pen to paper and really figure out how much it would cost to deploy and then try to anticipate how much money it's going to save the company in terms of additional productivity and so on. My hunch is that the savings outweigh the costs, but that's just a hunch.

For example, e-mail is such a big part of people's lives, but it's become such a drain. Outlook 2003 has a number of new features, such as search folders, which help make e-mail a useful tool again. And for the small to medium business, I think the new Business Contact Manager might be another feature that justifies the upgrade. Where do Office Solution Accelerators fit in to the overall picture?
The solution accelerators will be available later this fall. I think of them as templates on steroids. Where a document template helps you jump-start a document, the solution accelerators are templates for business processes that help you jump-start the process. For example, there will be a solution accelerator for recruiting that helps companies build a recruiting process using Office 2003. The bottom line is that the solution accelerators make it more likely that a business will be able to use new technology in ways that benefit the business.

I guess I'd say that they provide momentum where there was none. However, if the Office solution accelerators are like others I've seen, there is a learning curve involved in implementing them. Not only do you have to learn the fundamental technologies, but you have to learn the implementation provided by the solution accelerator. What are your plans for Office 2003?
I don't yet have any customers that are ready to do Office 2003. In fact, I'm still working on some Office XP projects. I anticipate more interest in Office 2003 early next year, though.

As for myself, I run a typical small-business shop (about 20 PCs and a few servers). I've seen enough of Office 2003 to know that it's going to save me a lot of time, and I'm extremely motivated by some of the new features and new technology. For example, Microsoft has finally delivered to me a version of FrontPage that rocks.

The new version of Outlook is going to help my productivity, and Business Contact Manager is going to become an essential tool for me. With all that said, I anticipate deploying Office 2003 by launch. I use Active Directory for software deployment, so it should be an easy task. The most difficult part that I anticipate is planning my customizations.


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