Microsoft sets Office 2003 loose

Microsoft's top executives gathered in New York on Tuesday to formally introduce more than a dozen Office 2003 products, marking what Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates called the most products launched on a single day in Microsoft's history.

Office 2003 applications have been available for weeks through some channels, including Microsoft's subscription maintenance plan for volume buyers and its developer network service. Tuesday's launch signals the products' availability through retail and other mass-market channels.

"This is the first major wave of products since I became chief software architect three years ago," Gates said in a keynote address. "There is now a single architectural approach."

Collaboration is the focus of Office 2003, according to Gates. New products such as the InfoPath information manager, along with deeper integration between existing Office applications and Microsoft's back-end server software, are aimed at enabling more effective and secure information sharing, he said.

Not all of Office 2003's components will be included in its core product bundles. Some applications, such as InfoPath, will be bundled only with enterprise packages sold through Microsoft's volume-licensing program, while other applications, such as Microsoft's debuting OneNote note-taking software, will be sold as standalone products. Microsoft's Web site lists its product bundles, prices and licensing options.

Gates used his speech to illustrate the collaborative advances in Office 2003, demonstrating SharePoint Portal's capabilities for linking documents from several workers and discussing the pervasive role of XML (Extensible Markup Language) and Web services standards in enabling Office 2003's data integration.

"I think that this advance would not have been possible without the industry's commitment to XML and Web services," he said. "Virtually every large customer Microsoft has is now building at least some of their applications around Web services."

Gates also spotlighted some of the look-and-feel tweaks in Office 2003, focusing particularly on Outlook, which he called the most-changed Office application. Back-end revamping on Exchange 2003 will increase efficiency and let companies reduce server and bandwidth costs, he said, while new spam filters will potentially save users hours each week, he said.

A representative of Office 2003's largest corporate customer to date, Siemens, said the company anticipates significant savings by deploying the entire Office 2003 package to 330,000 employees worldwide.

Server consolidation will lower Siemens' Exchange operating costs, but its most dramatic corporate changes will come from deploying Microsoft's "smart documents" capabilities, said Dieter Reinersmann. Siemens had previous used a separate application for corporate forms, requiring data reentry and user training to master the application's non-intuitive interface. By using Office 2003's features for storing data in a central repository for reuse in a variety of applications, Siemens will be able to scrap its earlier solution, cutting development time for changes from six months to six weeks and saving the company $315,000 annually, he said.

Microsoft is also tracking ROI (return on investment) for its own internal Office 2003 deployment. One area in which the company foresees savings is through its new Live Meeting hosted Web conferencing service. If one meeting in five can be replaced by a virtual meeting, Microsoft stands to save $43 million each year, Gates said.

About 500,000 beta copies of Office 2003 were downloaded during the suite's testing phase, Microsoft Group Vice President Jeff Raikes said during a question-and-answer session preceding Gates' speech. Raikes declined to predict how quickly Office 2003 will be adopted, but said he thinks it will spread more quickly than Office XP did.