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Office becomes a system

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Few can compete with Microsoft executives when it comes to believing their own advertising! To quote Jeff Raikes, head of the Office product division, "the number 1 competitive challenge for us is the satisfaction that people have in our installed base - the fact that they feel that what they have is working".

He is correct that people can no longer face yet another upgrade to Office, but not because they are satisfied but because it has taken enough effort to find a personal useable subset of Word, etc. and they don't want the aggravation again; better the devil you know.
Thus in order to sell another version of Office, it must offer something new and important, something worth suffering for in the first place. Office 2003 is something different, it is not yet another upgrade to Office. It is sometimes referred to by Microsoft as "Office System", and that is the essential difference between it and its predecessors. Office 2003, together with a host of server announcements and applications, from Microsoft themselves and their partners is targeted at solving the growing need for "collaborative" systems. This is not a new problem and there has been a gross under investment in workflow and document systems in the past, but better late than never. Lotus Notes has tackled the problem of cooperative systems from the bias of an office environment, but they have failed to get the message over to the bulk of users. It shows up the difference in marketing and selling ability between Microsoft and Lotus that such an inferior product as Exchange could outsell Notes! Now, with Office 2003 Microsoft have moved into Lotus' space, so they had better watch out. More important however is the weight that Microsoft can bring to bear and hopefully to get users to wake up to the opportunities that structured systems can offer. It is rather amusing to think that the company that trapped us into unstructured systems, thereby delaying progress for five, even ten, years, is to be our saviour.
The new system is exploiting open standards, in particular XML and the Web Services protocols. Don't get too excited however, they have applied many techniques, schema in particular, to make this a proprietary system. A commitment to Office 2003 is a total tie-in to Microsoft. Anyone looking to standards as an escape path from the exorbitant cost of Microsoft software must be patient. They must look towards alternatives to the current Office products in the short term and wait for longer term OSS collaborative efforts to mature.
The trap that Raikes referred to as quoted above, lies in Word (and to a lesser extent Excel) which is totally unstructured. Apart from a header containing basic ownership data, there is no metadata with a Word document; all formatting is embedded with the text inside the document. This of course is true of any word processor, a technology which should have been replaced with document systems many years ago, but better late than never. Microsoft appear to have come up with the best compromise solution, which is to introduce a new version of Wordwhich can map some Word documents into structured documents< BR>
Martin Healey, pioneer development Intel-based computers en c/s-architecture. Director of a number of IT specialist companies and an Emeritus Professor of the University of Wales.


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