Microsoft released Microsoft Office 2003 to manufacturing last week. Starting as early as September, new computers and Microsoft's volume licensing price lists will carry the new version. Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN) subscribers will be able to download Office 2003 starting October 1. The Office suite and the standalone versions of Outlook and other Office programs will arrive in retail stores October 21, when official launch events will take place.

Microsoft recently made some substantial changes to its licensing policy for Office 2003, so I thought it might be useful to review what options are available if you're considering an upgrade from an earlier version of Office. (Note that, as with earlier versions, Outlook 2003 will be available to Exchange 2003 customers as part of the Exchange Client Access License--CAL; Exchange customers don't need to buy a separate Outlook license.)

The first factor to consider is how you obtained your current Office software-–whether you bought a retail version, received it as part of a new PC (an OEM copy), or purchased a volume license for your company that entitled you to install Office on multiple machines. For volume license customers, a second factor is whether you have Software Assurance (SA) or Upgrade Advantage (UA) with your license. SA is an option that lets you upgrade to the current version of a product during the term of your volume license. UA is an older, similar upgrade program that Microsoft is phasing out.

For retail and OEM customers, any version of Office 97 or Works 6.0 or later entitles you to an upgrade to the corresponding version of Office at a discount from the full retail price. (Office XP Standard for Students and Teachers, available to students and educators, doesn't qualify for the upgrade discount, however.) A comparable offer applies for most of the individual Office programs; an earlier version of Word, for example, lets you upgrade to Word 2003 for a discounted price. No upgrade offer exists for earlier versions of Outlook, though. As a standalone product, Outlook 2003 will be available only at full retail price.

A retail license lets a user install Office 2003 on both a desktop and a portable computer, with the caveat that only one of those systems can be running the Office copy at any given time. (Volume licenses also include this "secondary use" provision.) The Microsoft Office Student and Teacher Edition 2003 is even more flexible: It lets you install and use Office on as many as three computers. The OEM version, however, is tied to the original machine. You can't move or copy an OEM edition of Office to a different machine.

The upgrade options get quite a bit more complicated for volume license customers. Basically, if you have a license that includes upgrade protection, you can upgrade to the same edition of Office 2003 at no charge. However, you also have two one-time opportunities to consider, both of them aimed at generating interest in the top-of-the-line Professional Enterprise Edition of the suite.

Volume licensees can choose from the Standard Edition, which consists of Outlook, Word, Excel, and PowerPoint; the Small Business Edition, which adds Business Contact Manager (an Outlook COM add-in, new in Office 2003) and Publisher; and the Professional Enterprise Edition, which adds Access and the new InfoPath program. However, more distinguishes the Pro edition from the other two than just the applications included; the Outlook, Word, Excel, and PowerPoint versions are actually different. In the Pro version only, these applications support Information Rights Management for restricting the use of documents and mail messages, customer-defined XML schema, and a control that adds Excel-like features to data lists in the upcoming version of Windows SharePoint Services. These three features are available only in the Professional Enterprise Edition for volume customers and in the retail and OEM Professional versions.

This brings us to special offer #1: Microsoft will let customers who have a volume license for the Standard Edition and upgrade protection (SA, UA, or Enterprise Agreement) install and use the Pro versions of Outlook, Word, Excel, and PowerPoint instead of the Standard Edition versions. Organizations that don't currently have a volume license and want to take advantage of this offer must buy the Standard Edition plus SA before March 31, 2004.

Special offer #2 is a "step-up license" to enable organizations that have the Standard Edition and upgrade protection to upgrade to Pro for the cost of the difference between the two licenses. That offer is good through September 1, 2004.

As you plan the technical details of an Office 2003 upgrade, do your licensing homework and read the fine print in the articles listed below. You can also talk to a licensing specialist either at Microsoft or at your software distributor. I was able to obtain helpful, straight answers to all but the most arcane of my licensing questions in a free 20-minute phone call to Microsoft Sales.

Microsoft Office System Transition & Promotions http://www.microsoft.com/licensing/downloads/office_2003_transition.doc

Microsoft Office System Retail Version Upgrade Eligibility http://www.microsoft.com/office/preview/pricing/upgrade.asp