First Office 2003 users weigh in

With Office System 2003 now officially open for business, users are weighing in with opinions on the updated suite.

Outlook's overhaul impressed them the most, although several had mixed opinions on the new look. But the much-touted collaboration functions and new XML capabilities have already proved useful, several beta testers report.

Bill Gates, Microsoft's chairman and chief software architect, launched the new suite of productivity applications at an event here Tuesday.

"Today we're introducing more software products on a single day than on any other day in our history," he said.

Gates used his 90-minute presentation to highlight the enhanced collaboration tools that the upgrade suite offers, as well as the improved integration between all of the applications. He was joined on stage by Jeff Raikes, Microsoft's group vice president for productivity and business services, who called the release a "major milestone in the history of Office."

Many of the new features in Office System 2003, as the new suite is called, are not immediately apparent to the end users. Much of the upgrade, such as its enhanced XML support, are under the hood.

Still, Office 2003 does feature some key changes, most notably with Outlook, Microsoft's e-mail client. It also includes new applications, among them OneNote, a note-taking program, and InfoPath, an XML document creator.

The changes in Outlook and the addition of the new applications were the chief topic of conversation among Microsoft's beta testers who were present for Tuesday's launch event.

Mixed Reactions

Several of Microsoft's MVPs, or Most Valuable Professionals, also served as beta testers for Office 2003. All of those asked cite Outlook as the most obvious change in the new Office suite, but give different opinions about the redesign. Microsoft has changed Outlook's interface from listing messages on the top and the preview pane on the bottom, to a three-paneled vertical view.

"It takes some getting used to, learning where to find things," says David Berry, a Microsoft MVP who has been beta testing the software giant's products since 1999. "Outlook, especially, that was kind of a difficult change."

Berry, a business systems delivery specialist with Aetna in the US, says the redesign makes Outlook easier to use. "You get very comfortable with the way it's laid out. The first time I opened it, it took a little while to get used to, but now I realize I can see more information," he says.

But he admits he sometimes misses the old interface: "I do try to make it look as much like the older version as possible."

Beta tester Dave Beauchemin, who is a senior developer with CompuWare in Montreal, agrees. "There were a few things that surprised me, like the three-pane view in Outlook," he says. "I thought, how can that make it easier? But after a day or two, I found it a lot better than older versions. It fits how your eye naturally scans the screen, from left to right."

Patricia Cardoza, a beta tester who works as an information systems applications specialist in the US, also says the new Outlook took some getting used to. But, she adds, "Within two hours, I fell in love with it. I can see so much more information."

Ben Schorr, a Microsoft MVP and beta tester from Honolulu, says he needed no adjustment period at all with the new Outlook: "I loved it as soon as I saw it."

New and Noteworthy

All of the beta users agreed the new e-mail grouping features in Outlook, which let you arrange how messages are organized in your in-box, are a key addition.

Cardoza says she really appreciates the ability to group messages by day, without having to worry about time. "I'm not interested in what was received at 8:58:02 yesterday, I just want to know what was received yesterday, or the day before, or two weeks ago," she says. "It's designed to allow people to find what they want."

Berry says the new grouping tools, combined with the capability to view multiple e-mail accounts and calendars from within Outlook, show Microsoft paid attention to the little things with this new release. "It makes it a lot easier for me to find e-mail," he says.

Schorr says the new spam filters sold him on the upgrade. "The spam filters and OneNote, those are the two key reasons to upgrade," he says.

Schorr is IT manager of a law firm, and calls himself a "voracious note-taker." He uses OneNote on a desktop PC, not a Tablet, and says you don't need a Tablet to experience the advantages it offers. "I like that it's free-form, you can type anywhere, you can drag and drop," he says.

Several lawyers in his firm recently started using OneNote to track their research on an upcoming case, Schorr adds. "Usually, they take their notes on yellow note pads, which are great, but they're not so easy to share," he says. For example, one lawyer created a OneNote document to store his research on an upcoming case, enabling him to share the notes, as well as hyperlinks that would have been impossible to create on a notepad, with another lawyer who wasn't using OneNote, Schorr says. He simply sent the document using Outlook, and the other lawyer was able to see all of the information he needed using only his e-mail application.

This kind of integration, which Gates highlighted during his presentation, was mentioned by all of the beta testers.

"One of the greatest features is the integration," Beauchemin says. "All of the applications work so well together. It made my life a lot easier."

Overall, the beta testers report being very satisfied with the new Office suite. "The more I use it, I realize that this is one of the best releases we've seen. They added a lot of features that users have been asking for," Berry says.

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Liane Cassavoy

PC World

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