Microsoft announced yesterday that it has finalized the core Microsoft Office 2003 products (i.e., Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, FrontPage, Outlook, Publisher, and Visio) and released them to manufacturing, setting the stage for an October 21 launch in New York. Starting with this release, Microsoft is marketing its Office products as part of the Microsoft Office System; other Microsoft Office System products will be finalized in the days ahead.
   "The release to manufacturing of the Microsoft Office System \[core products\] is a milestone, not only in terms of the unprecedented development and testing work that went into it, but also because it enables customers to piece together data and operational aspects of their businesses where the real work happens: at individuals' desktops," Steven Sinofsky, senior vice president of the Information Worker Group, said. "The value of software is measured in how you use it, and never before has it been so easy for businesses to derive such incredible value from their software investments."
   Microsoft says that more than 600,000 beta testers participated in the Office 2003 beta--three times more than participated in the Office XP beta. Feedback from users who obtained the publicly available beta 2 release was key to producing a high-quality product that met users' needs. Microsoft told me that an interim Beta 2 Refresh release that the company made available online to all Beta 2 users was the result of user feedback from Beta 2. This feedback and the resulting changes caused Microsoft to delay the Office 2003 release by several months.
   In the United States, Office 2003 products will have the same pricing as the current Office XP products. The least expensive version, Microsoft Office Student and Teacher Edition 2003, will carry a $149 suggested retail price. Individual applications will cost $99 to $599 at retail, depending on the product and whether it's an upgrade version. Microsoft will make Office 2003 available through volume licensing starting September 1; PC makers will begin shipping machines with Office 2003 preinstalled by the end of September. Retail customers in the United States and Canada can purchase Office 2003 products beginning October 21, the company says.
    Later today, I'll update my "Office 2003 Editions Compared" showcase on the SuperSite for Windows to detail the US retail prices of the various Office 2003 products