10 burning questions about Microsoft Office 2007

Microsoft Office is no longer one-size-fits-all, but rather a complicated set of programs users can customize, mix and match. But at what cost?

Nearly a year ago, Microsoft released Office 2007 to corporate users and so began the slow and methodical evaluation of the software (unless, of course, you were an early adopter).

With migrations to Vista, which is intertwined with Office, slowly looming on the drawing boards for many companies over the next three years and beyond, here’s a look at some of the questions to help pick apart Office and figure out how, when and where it fits into corporate desktop, infrastructure, VoIP and software-as-a service plans, and the target it presents to OpenOffice.org-based suites and online productivity tools popping up on the Web.

The Office 2007 challengeMicrosoft's Office 2007 is more than just a collection of productivity applications — for the first time it includes an extensive array of front-end clients and back-end servers that provide everything from text-editing to call-forwarding.
Get the installed base to move.Why is upgrading to the new Office better than staying on the old Office? Microsoft has to answer this question for users with every revision of its cash-cow duo (Office and Windows). The expanded scope of the entire suite is the umbrella message.
Win users over to the value of the Office System infrastructure.More than ever before, Microsoft can sell Office to IT for its back-end capabilities, such as content management and real-time collaboration. VoIP will be a tough sell, but has knockout-punch power.
Take the document-formatting issue out of the equation.As users consider their productivity application costs and user needs, the availability of translators to convert between OpenDocument Format and Office Open XML will make it easier for companies to defer some desktops to Open Office suites. Microsoft will have to figure out how to use the translators, some of which it is funding via the open source community, to its advantage.

What is different about Office 2007?

Well, this isn’t your father’s office suite. Office 2007, or what Microsoft calls the Office System, comes in eight versions and contains 15 programs, eight servers and seven services or add-ons. Users don’t have to buy or deploy all those pieces, but the days of the Word-Excel-PowerPoint-Access bundle now seem quaint by comparison. With the Office 2007 suite, users can set up content management, integrate with online services, deploy real-time communication tools and other infrastructures using Office system pieces. That means Office is no longer a desktop decision made by the desktop team. It is also an infrastructure decision that ultimately involves IT. And it is a path that must include consideration of how it will integrate with third-party vendors, especially when deployments hit the VoIP level.

What’s also different in the interface, most notably the ribbon, which presents commands organized into a set of tabs. The tabs change on the ribbon to display the commands that are most relevant for the specific Office application open on the desktop.

What does this change mean? 

Training issues. Be forewarned.Why so many versions and what do they cost?Office is no longer one size fits all. Microsoft has customized SKUs to meet specific demands and hopefully stimulate sales. Here are the versions and their prices:Basic 2007 (no price quote, only available through OEMs), Home and Student ($149, with no upgrade option), Standard ($399, or $239 to upgrade), Small Business Edition ($449, or $279 to upgrade), Professional 2007 ($499, or $329 for an upgrade), Ultimate 2007 (priced at $679, or $539 for an upgrade), Professional Plus 2007 (volume licensing sales only), Enterprise 2007 (volume licensing sales only).

Are there other licensing considerations?

Yes, all of the Office servers, all of the Web access clients (Communicator, Outlook and Project), and the Groove client are only available via volume licensing contracts. Also users will need volume licensing contracts to have access to the new Office Enterprise 2007 and Office Professional Plus 2007. The main difference between the two bundles is the inclusion of Office Groove in the Enterprise Edition. Both will ship with the Office Communicator client for instant messaging and real-time communications, including VoIP.

How does Office relate to Microsoft’s recent unified communications release?

Here’s one place where the Office System concept comes into play on the back of the recently released Office Communications Server 2007, the Office Communicator client, and Office pieces including Outlook and SharePoint Server 2007, to name a few. Presence is a cornerstone, allowing instant access to colleagues and collaborators from any file where a name is visible. Integration with VoIP and the Live Meeting Web conferencing server provides voice and video. The message is that Office on the desktop becomes more feature rich when the back-end servers are introduced to the network.

Why is there so much chatter about SharePoint Server 2007?

Microsoft wants to be a provider of content management software and this is the vehicle to get there. SharePoint, in fact, is catching on like wildfire in corporations, but it is still used mostly to host team workspaces.

CEO Steve Ballmer, however, last month pegged SharePoint as one of the next billion-dollar businesses for Microsoft. Look for SharePoint to become a platform for new social networking features and Web 2.0 add-ons to Office. But buyer beware, SharePoint Server 2007 requires an SQL Server client access license to support some of SharePoint’s features. The cost of the client access license can easily push the per-user cost of running SharePoint up by $300-$500, according to Forrester Research.

What is OBA, Duet, Live services?

Microsoft has packed something it calls “Solutions and Services” around Office 2007 and is encouraging partners and customers to tap into back-end systems like ERP and CRM and extend/customize Office along various avenues such as business process automation. OBAs, or Office Business Applications, are reference applications with imposing names like Consumer Engagement Reference Architecture for Health Plans. Duet is part of the Microsoft/SAP partnership to link Office to SAP. And Microsoft also lumps into this category project management and online services Live Meeting and Office Live. Users can expect to get their hands dirty with most of these extension projects.

What’s new with Outlook?

The biggest difference is that Outlook is no longer included with Exchange and must be acquired via Office. So why is that a factor? Because those deploying Exchange 2007 will now need to buy Office licenses to get the client software. What’s new feature/functionality-wise includes the To-do bar, which keeps tasks and calendars close at hand; support for RSS feeds; integration with Windows Desktops Search; and an attachment preview feature. What is more interesting, and could impact current deployments, are the features that have been cut. Gone are Outlook’s native e-mail editor, which has been replaced by Word; NetMeeting; the Personal Address Book has migrated to the Contacts folder; the TaskPad, which was replaced by the To-do bar; Follow-Up flags give way to Task flags; the Follow-up button is history; Schedule+; and security settings moved to Trust Center. Those are just a handful of the changes in Outlook.

We heard so much lately about document formats what’s the story with Office?

If you have missed the extensive debates on Open Document Format and Office Open XML, the default file format in Office 2007, quit hitting the snooze button. While the ISO rejected standardization for Open Office XML, don’t look for Microsoft to adopt Open Document Format any time soon. To support the format (and to exchange files with any open Office suites like those from IBM, Sun and ThinkFree), a number of translators are available, including an open source version funded by Microsoft and available via Source Forge, the open source software development Web site. The tool was developed under the open source Berkeley Software Distribution license and will translate between the default Office 2007 file type and ODF.

Are there bugs?

It’s not like Office is comparable to a warm summer evening by a Minnesota lake, but yes. Even though Office 2007 was one of the first products that went through Microsoft’s Security Development Lifecycle, it only took until February (following a January launch) for EEye Digital Security to find the first Office 2007 remote code vulnerability. In August, a vulnerability was fixed that could allow remote code execution in Groove Server 2007. A similar vulnerability was patched in various Office System 2007 pieces in May and July. In October, Microsoft patched Excel to fix a bug that produced multiplication errors, and Microsoft issued a patch for vulnerability in SharePoint Server 2007 that would let an attacker run arbitrary code.

What’s next and when might we see it?

Most of what is known about future Office versions falls squarely in the speculation realm. The Windows enthusiast Web site AeroXperience reports that the next version will be code-named Office 14. Since Office 2007 was code-named Office 12, it appears Microsoft has Triskaidekaphobia, fear of the number 13. AeroXperience, citing internal Microsoft documentation, says Office 14 focuses on productivity, communication and collaboration, enterprise content management, business process and business intelligence, manageability and security. Translation: No details are available. Ship dates for 14 include first half of 2008 for Beta 1, second half of 2008 for Beta 2 and first half of 2009 for final shipment. Microsoft, not surprisingly, denies the validity of the report and would love to have everyone else do the same and buy Office 2007 instead.

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