Now that Microsoft has released Office XP for preview and will soon ship it to large corporate customers and, later this spring, to retailers, let's talk strategy. How do you decide whether this upgrade delivers features you need at the right price?

The price issue requires careful study, but that will have to wait. Microsoft hasn't released Office XP's pricing nor revealed which suite packages will contain which Office applications. For each package, Microsoft will offer many conventional pricing plans —full retail, upgrade from earlier Office versions or competing products, and volume discounts through the Open License, Select, Enterprise, and academic programs—plus the new subscription pricing model.

Your cost analysis should factor in deployment, support, and the up-front cost. Office XP includes good deployment tools, but test them first. Find out how easy it is to deploy Office XP with the options you need, and how well the tools handle additional deployment actions you might require. Keep in mind that you might want to deploy Office XP only to certain people who need particular features.

On the support side, include people who work at your Help desk in the evaluation process. They'll know what features give users the most trouble. Does Office XP make these features easier to use, or harder? What workarounds does the Help desk currently recommend to remedy Outlook's shortcomings, or those of the other Office programs? Does the need for these kludges disappear in Office XP? If you opt to deploy Office XP to certain groups that need particular features, can the Help desk support multiple versions?

Helpdesk input can point you toward a detailed analysis of Office XP features. Once you understand how users work with today's Office programs, you can evaluate Office XP's capability to support current activities as well as efforts to meet company-specific goals. Depending on the company's size and resources, you might conduct internal focus groups and surveys to discover application features that users rank as most important and most in need of improvement. Match up the information with Office XP's features.

Remember to ask what Office XP takes away; you won't find that information at Microsoft's Web site. Keep an eye on the newsgroups and other discussion forums, where early adopters will shed light on Office XP features and potential pitfalls. For example, Outlook 2002 doesn't connect to certain older mail servers (Microsoft Mail and cc:Mail) and fax components (Microsoft Fax and Symantec WinFax SE). It doesn't support Net Folders, the mail-based method for sharing data without Exchange Server. Outlook 2002 tightens security, but will that feature impair your existing inhouse applications that depend on Outlook? If so, are you willing and able to deploy the administrative components for Outlook security to your Exchange Server or Hewlett Packard OpenMail server?

Finally, as with any proposal for spending money, there's a hidden cost: if you deploy Office XP, you can't spend that sum for something else. Your organization's needs might be better served by buying a new version of Office or by investing in training employees to use existing desktop software more effectively.