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Final version of Office 2003 near

Office 2003, the newest version of Microsoft's suite of desktop applications, is nearly complete. The software is expected to be released to manufacturing Aug. 15.

For IT administrators who consider Outlook 2003 the best part of the upcoming Office 2003 suite of applications, the wait for the new messaging client won't be much longer.

Office 2003 is expected to go to manufacturing Aug. 15, which is also when pricing information should become available, according to people familiar with the company's plans. Office 2003, which has been tested by about 600,000 users, is the upgrade to Office XP. The software was originally set to launch in June but was pushed back because of additional testing requirements.

Microsoft officials declined to comment on the Office release to manufacturing (RTM) date or on the official launch of Office and Exchange 2003, which is expected around mid-October, the sources said.

The newest version of Outlook has much appeal. It adds e-mail filtering, an improved user interface, mobility features with a Cached Exchange Mode, better connectivity capabilities and secure connections on HTTP, among other things. Outlook with Business Contact Manager is a feature to help small businesses more closely track customer accounts.

"It seems as if they've heard our complaints," said Ibrahim Abdul-Karim, an Exchange administrator at Delaware Investments, a Philadelphia-based financial services company. "They've improved on the usability and functionality of the client."

The rollout of Office 2003 has caused some confusion for a few reasons. First, Microsoft has rebranded a number of applications sold separately as part of the "Office" system. Also, there are variations within the applications, depending on the intended audience, so Word 2003 in one edition may not be the same as Word 2003 in another edition.

The way the SKUs are bundled doesn't just indicate product groupings, said Timothy Hickernell, vice president at Meta Group Inc., Stamford, Conn. "There are also functional differences," he said.

There is a standard edition and a professional edition, and the core applications --Word, Excel, Outlook and PowerPoint -- have slightly different features. The professional edition also includes two additional applications: Access 2003 and Publisher 2003. Customers can get Infopath 2003 if they have a volume-licensing agreement. This edition also has extra support for XML and information rights management.

With this release of Office, Microsoft is attempting to serve a broad segment of customers by packaging the software in a more customizable fashion, said Julie Giera, research fellow at Forrester Research Inc., a Cambridge, Mass., consulting firm. "It may make it confusing, but it's probably a good thing to customize the Office suite for customers who have different needs."

The most important thing, Giera said, is that "any migration is an expensive project, so choosing the right version for your company is a big deal."

There are a number of other applications that now fall under the Office brand but are not included in the core Office product. They include Sharepoint Portal Server 2003 and Live Communications Server 2003, among others. These applications can be purchased as standalone products, a company spokeswoman said.

The products that fall under the Office 2003 umbrella offer much closer integration and more interactivity than in the past, Giera said.

This will be a complex release, and customers should do a fair amount of experimentation, particularly where new features are concerned, said Paul DeGroot, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft, Kirkland, Wash.

DeGroot said customers should test some of the rights management and custom XML features in the standard version of Office 2003, which may not have been part of the beta.

Also, he said, customers should watch to see whether specific patch versions for Word or Outlook are needed for the particular edition the customer is using. "Because the bits are different, customers need to be aware that patching of vulnerabilities in Office could become more complicated," DeGroot said.

Outlook, for example, is often a magnet for security problems. There will be two versions of Outlook, one professional and one standard. "They are two different executable programs, and it's possible that Microsoft may have to issue two different patches, or at least patches that are more complex," he said.

Further, knowing that a user has the standard version of Office 2003 doesn't reveal the underlying applications. Some customers with the standard version of Office edition have the right to use Word, PowerPoint, Excel and Outlook from the Office 2003 professional version, and those have the XML capability, he said. Microsoft recently said it will give volume-license customers with standard editions of Office the ability to upgrade to the professional edition and just pay the difference in price.

The company did this so customers who purchased the standard edition before the core applications were differentiated would not be penalized if they decided to choose the professional edition instead, the Microsoft spokeswoman said.

The bundling possibilities make for improved flexibility. On the other hand, "we may see many new problems that we haven't seen before," DeGroot said.


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