Is upgrading to Office 2000 worth the time and expense?

I recently heard a sobering statistic that might change your perspective about the importance of office-productivity applications to your organization. Like me, you probably assume that most organizations store the majority of their crucial data in enterprise resource planning (ERP) products (e.g., SAP R/3), groupware products (e.g., Lotus Notes, Microsoft Exchange Server), or customized SQL databases. Guess again. At a recent Microsoft technology briefing, one of the presenters cited a survey that sampled several Fortune 1000 companies. The survey results show that these organizations store more than 80 percent of their corporate data in Microsoft Office documents.

This statistic explains why Office has consistently remained Microsoft's number-one revenue source. Microsoft's need to preserve its golden goose, coupled with corporate IT managers' and users' demands for easier-to-use-and-manage features, are the driving force behind Office 2000. Thanks to Microsoft's worldwide marketing blitz, the media has given Office 2000 an enormous amount of coverage and hype. However, this whirlwind campaign might have left you questioning how Office 2000 can improve your life. You might also be curious about how the new version will affect your network and users, and what new tools Microsoft provides to ease Office 2000's deployment and long-term management. (For a list of helpful resources, see the sidebar "Office 2000 Enterprise-Planning Resources," page 58.)

I won't bore you with a tedious feature-by-feature description of each new Office 2000 enhancement. (For a detailed description of every Office 2000 improvement, read Microsoft's Office 2000 product enhancements guide at http://www.microsoft.com/office.) Instead, I provide an unbiased analysis of the product suite to help you determine whether migrating or upgrading to Office 2000 is worth the time and expense. I give you the lowdown about Office 2000's hits and misses and help you discover what's hot and what's not in Office 2000.

Forgo Your TCO Woes
Corporate IT and financial managers' biggest complaint about software is high total cost of ownership (TCO). Windows applications are notoriously expensive to install, maintain, and support—particularly in large-scale deployments. Office is no exception. Although Microsoft has made an effort to provide tools to help deploy and maintain Office installations, these tools don't satisfy many corporate customers. However, Office 2000 provides evidence that Microsoft is finally listening to corporate customers' TCO woes.

Office 2000 offers several TCO-related enhancements. In many cases, the new features are Microsoft's attempts to atone for past shortcomings. For example, Office 97 is infamous for the version-incompatibility disasters it creates in mixed Office 95 and Office 97 environments. Office 2000 is mixed-version friendly. Its predecessors default to saving documents in updated versions that render them incompatible to earlier versions of Office, but Office 2000 saves documents in formats that you can directly edit from Office 97 applications without conversion. This functionality makes document editing in mixed-version environments transparent for users and reduces administrators' stress during an Office 2000 migration's transition period. However, Office 97 applications aren't Office 2000-aware and don't share Office 2000's new mixed-version-compatibility features, so Office 2000-specific formatting features don't survive mixed-version saving. As a result, a truly seamless editing environment can't exist until you upgrade all machines to Office 2000.

Microsoft Access 2000 also provides evidence of Office 2000's backward compatibility. To support enhancements such as Unicode support, Access 2000 introduces a new database format that differs from its predecessors' database format. However, you can use Access 2000 to save databases in an Access 9x-compatible format. This feature means you don't need to retain Access 9x for users who need to use data created with Access 9x.

Additional improvements in the TCO arena include improved migration of user-preference settings when you upgrade from earlier Office versions to Office 2000, and enhanced system policy template files (i.e., .adm files) that provide more granular administrative control over user-preference settings in Office applications. These enhanced system policy template files provide administrators more fine-grained control over an Office environment's consistency and security than is possible with earlier office versions.

Last but not least in this category are Office 2000's self-healing features, which are a prerelease of Windows 2000's (Win2K's) Windows Installer service and the software-deployment capabilities of Group Policy Objects. You can split Office 2000's self-healing abilities into two categories. First, Office 2000 can automatically identify and resolve situations in which users have deleted, replaced with incompatible versions, or damaged crucial Office files. Office 2000 detects these conditions during application startup and remedies them. Second, the Detect and Repair feature in each application's Help menu can locate and repair problems with noncritical application files such as fonts and templates. Although users must manually initiate this feature, it's useful in situations in which an Office application starts but has problems with one or more of its support files. Screen 1 shows a Detect and Repair dialog box. These self-healing features translate into significant long-term cost savings for many organizations.

A Joy to Deploy
Although installing and deploying an application isn't usually anything to get excited about, Office 2000's suite of installation and deployment offerings is one of the product's most enticing and usable new features. In fact, Office 2000's installation and deployment features are a prerelease of Win2K's Windows Installer technology. The following list highlights Office 2000's installation and deployment-related features.

Installation on demand. Office 2000 solves a common software-installation dilemma: How much of this monstrous application will users need and how much disk space can I afford to sacrifice for it? When you select Office 2000's Install on first use option during any Office component's setup, Office 2000 doesn't install that component to the user's hard disk until the user first attempts to use the component. As a result, administrators no longer have to fret about which Office components they need to install for each user or group of users. In addition, if users request supplementary features, Office 2000 will handle the installation of the additional features from a CD-ROM or a network-installation share point. This functionality saves disk space because administrators can conservatively install Office 2000's basic components without worrying whether a user will need additional Office tools. The install-on-demand feature also supports Office 2000's self-healing features, so Office can request and install replacements for damaged or missing files on the fly.

Office Profile Wizard. The ability to predefine users' application selections is essential to maintaining software-configuration consistency across an enterprise. Microsoft provides Office 2000's Office Profile Wizard to help maintain a consistent environment. In conjunction with the Custom Installation Wizard, the Office Profile Wizard lets users or administrators save the existing configuration of Office applications installed on a local machine. This feature's primary benefit is that it lets administrators create a master reference machine that represents the intended configuration for all network users' systems. Administrators can save this configuration in a file that they can later use in an Office 2000 deployment to provide a consistent configuration. Another benefit of the Office Profile Wizard is that it lets users save their existing settings and migrate them to another machine. Microsoft provides this tool as part of the Microsoft Office 2000 Resource Kit, which is included in the Premium Edition of Office 2000 and which Microsoft Press sells. You can also download a core set of the Office 2000 resource kit tools from Microsoft's Web site (http://www.microsoft.com/office/ork/2000).

Custom Installation Wizard. Another essential deployment tool is the Custom Installation Wizard, which replaces the Network Installation Wizard from Office 97 and Office 95. You can use this wizard, which Screen 2 shows, to create a customized Office 2000 installation for a set of users. Office 2000's Custom Installation Wizard includes the functionality of the Internet Explorer Administration Kit (IEAK) and the Outlook 98 Deployment Kit (ODK). In addition, the Custom Installation Wizard lets you create a custom installation that you can deliver to users by using a network share point or a CD-ROM. You can also create special transform files (.mst files) that reference your customizations when users invoke Office 2000's setup command.

Custom Maintenance Wizard. The Custom Installation Wizard is useful for creating customized installations, but what if you want to modify the installation state of components in an existing Office 2000 configuration? If you have a large base of Office 2000 users, you don't want to make changes on a machine-by-machine basis. The resource kit's Custom Maintenance Wizard (i.e., MaintWiz.exe), which Screen 3 shows, lets you customize the installation state of components on existing Office 2000 installations. The Custom Maintenance Wizard lets you open the Windows Installer package file (i.e., .msi file) that you used during the original Office 2000 installation and create a delta installation file that reflects changes to the installation state of an Office 2000 component. For example, you can change the installation state of Microsoft PowerPoint from Install on first use to Run from my computer. After you create a Custom Maintenance Wizard file, you can use the wizard and the /C command-line option (e.g., through a logon script) to apply the file to client systems. Although the resource kit mentions the Custom Maintenance Wizard, Microsoft didn't make this utility available until after the company shipped the resource kit. As a result, you have to download this utility from Microsoft's Web site (http://www.microsoft.com/office/ork/2000/appndx/toolbox.htm).

Installer service. A key component of Office 2000 is its new installer service, which runs as a background process with elevated privileges. This service is particularly important for Windows NT-based installations in which user security complications can affect the success of a software installation. Office 2000's installer service runs with elevated privileges and installs Office 2000 on users' behalf, which bypasses user security complications. This feature is a scaled-down version of Win2K's systemwide installer service.

Embracing the Web
Office 2000 represents Microsoft's official acceptance of the Web as a business- and document-management platform. This commitment takes several forms: Office 2000 lets you use intranet- and Internet-based Web servers as a primary user workspace and storage platform. In earlier Office versions, Microsoft gears the storage of Office-generated documents toward standard network file servers. Publishing Office documents to a Web server is possible with earlier Office versions, but this functionality served as a mechanism for publishing the document as read-only for others to access with a browser. Office 2000 lets users save Office documents directly to a Web server from the Save option in the File menu, open Office documents from a Web-based location, and edit documents using an Office application or Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE). Office 2000's Office Server Extensions (OSE) provide this functionality. These extensions are essentially a superset of the FrontPage extensions that administrators use to enable FrontPage on Web servers. Installing OSE on your corporate intranet servers lets them serve as true document-management platforms. In addition to basic editing capabilities, OSE supports features such as document collaboration.

Another milestone is that Microsoft has adopted HTML as a native file format for Office 2000. Earlier versions offer basic one-way conversions between native Office and HTML formats, but Office 2000 lets you use HTML as the primary format for Office documents without sacrificing Office 2000 capabilities. By leveraging the features in the latest HTML version, including Extensible Markup Language (XML) and cascading style sheets, Office 2000 applications such as Word and Excel documents preserve all their essential features when you save them in HTML.

A set of COM controls known as the Office Web Components also enhances Office 2000's Web friendliness. Office Web Components let users manipulate data types within an Office document directly from their browser. This feature, which requires IE 4.01 or later, lets users read and manipulate data within a browser rather than having to use the native Office application that they created the document with. For example, imagine that you're tasked with creating a budget-estimate document that contains an embedded spreadsheet with room for next year's departmental budget figures. After you post the document to your intranet server and apply the appropriate security, individual department heads can use the corporate intranet to navigate to the document and revise their budget figures within the browser. The level of Web integration in Office 2000 affirms that Microsoft is finally beginning to understand corporate-knowledge workers' needs.

Collaboration At Last
Although earlier Office versions provide more bells and whistles than most users need, Microsoft has ignored the idea of including workgroup-style document collaboration capabilities. Microsoft provides back-end horsepower (e.g., NT, Internet Information Server—IIS, Exchange Server, SQL Server) and front-end tools (e.g., Office, IE), but the company hasn't offered the glue to bond these elements. Earlier Office versions' document-collaboration capabilities amount to collision-prone joint editing of file-server-based documents or inefficient and server-clogging document collaboration through email. Office 2000 represents Microsoft's best effort to date to fill this gap.

In addition to the previously mentioned benefits, Office 2000's Web-integration features facilitate document collaboration. Office 2000's most important collaboration enhancement is its Web Discussion feature. This feature, which requires OSE on the host IIS server, lets users have in-document discussions on native Office or HTML-based documents. Collaborators can use native Office applications or IE to add discussion content to a document by using special toolbars that OSE provides on the host server. In addition, users can add discussion entries to various Office-document types, including documents created with Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Users can enter general document comments in a summary area or inline comments anchored to object types within the document (e.g., paragraphs, charts, tables). To manage the Web Discussion feature, administrators can use the Office Server Extensions Administration Home Page, which you use a standard Web browser to access. This page lets administrators configure discussion-related options such as whether discussions are enabled and discussion content-expiration time.

Another collaboration-oriented enhancement in Office 2000 is PowerPoint 2000's Presentation Broadcasting feature. PowerPoint 2000 lets you broadcast presentations that include a synchronized audio track over the Web. You can use Outlook to schedule Webcast presentations, and the audience can use a browser to view the presentation. The Presentation Broadcasting feature also lets you archive presentations and place them on a Web server for users to retrieve later. PowerPoint's built-in broadcasting feature lets you deliver content to as many as 15 simultaneous users.

To deliver a presentation to more than 15 users, you can use PowerPoint with Windows Media Services technology to reach an unlimited number of users. This setup requires you to first configure the online broadcasting service on an NT server running Windows Media Services server software. You can download the Windows Media Services server software from Microsoft's Web site, and the Office 2000 resource kit includes the online broadcasting server software.

Component Complaints
Despite the truckload of new features that Microsoft poured into Office 2000, the company upgraded some of Office 2000's components far more than others. Therefore, your satisfaction with Office 2000's improvements will depend greatly on which components you regularly use. In Office 2000, several Office components have stagnated or even regressed.

My primary complaint about Office 2000 relates to PowerPoint 2000. Although the new Presentation Broadcasting feature is cool, it fits more in the gee-whiz category than the must-have category for most PowerPoint users.

On a more serious note, I've experienced major problems with this product's stability. I regularly use PowerPoint on a desktop and laptop to create presentations. During an average presentation-editing session, PowerPoint 2000 crashes so frequently that I have resorted to setting the autosave interval to 1 minute to avoid losing a significant amount of work. In addition, PowerPoint 2000 intermittently locks up when I open presentations that contain certain graphic elements—files that PowerPoint 97 has no problem opening.

These shortcomings have tempted me to jump ship and return to PowerPoint 97, but therein lies another problem: Office 2000's unwillingness to let Office 2000 and Office 97 applications cohabit on the same system. Theoretically, this scenario works, but Microsoft posts dire warnings against attempting this configuration, and the company doesn't support systems running Office 2000 and earlier Office products. As a result, running Office 2000 is an all-or-nothing proposition.

In addition, Microsoft didn't enhance several Office 2000 applications to the degree you'd expect, considering the expense of an Office 2000 upgrade. For example, FrontPage 2000 is a big disappointment. I hoped Microsoft would include in FrontPage 2000 enhanced components that provide active, dynamic content to FrontPage sites. Although Microsoft provides this type of feature in earlier FrontPage versions, the feature is crude and offers limited capability compared with third-party offerings. For example, if you want to include on a Web page a box that contains vertically scrolling paragraphs of text, you have to develop or purchase code (e.g., a Visual Basic—VB—or Java-based applet) to provide this basic functionality. Most of FrontPage 2000's useful tools (e.g., a page-hit counter, a banner ad manager) are already available in FrontPage 98. This development slowdown opens an enormous gap for Microsoft's competitors.

Less significant Office 2000 disappointments include the new clip-art gallery, which is painfully slow to navigate and mainly comprises inferior quality graphics, and Office 2000's advanced user interface (UI) features such as smart menus. This feature is supposed to hide menu clutter and simplify the end-user experience by automatically displaying a custom menu set based on a user's commonly chosen menu selections. However, veteran Office users will probably find this feature more annoying than helpful.

The Missing Link
Despite these minor gripes, I'm impressed with Office 2000. The newest version of Office combines the best-of-breed features from each of its components with Win2K-style deployment and management features. Microsoft learned from past versions' shortcomings and spent less time clogging Office 2000 with marginally beneficial features and more time enhancing the product's UI and collaboration and manageability features. Office 2000's ability to use Web servers as a primary user workspace and storage platform makes it the perfect choice for organizations using a corporate intranet. Microsoft BackOffice-based environments will find Office 2000 particularly appealing because it's the missing link that can tie together existing BackOffice products such as IIS, Site Server, and Exchange Server.