The New Office: Something for Everyone

Office 2007 gives familiar applications a welcome makeover on both the interface and file-format level.

Microsoft Office is one of the most popular software packages on the planet. It's mature, stable and well-loved. For proof of that, you need look no further than the overwhelming market share Office has captured over the years. Considering that massive installed base, you may think the upgrade to the latest and greatest version would be an easy sell, but the reality can be quite different.

A product like Office with such a solid, established and loyal user base needs tangible reasons to upgrade. Compelling new features are essential, as is seamless compatibility with earlier versions. That being the case, its biggest competition is likely from itself. There are, however, several legitimate competitors to Microsoft Office. They might not have Office's reputation, solid track record and legions of fans, but they are still viable alternatives -- and all of them are less expensive.

The Office 2007 suite comes in a host of versions. Microsoft lists eight on its Web site. We'll focus here on Microsoft Office Standard 2007, which includes the four pillars of the suite -- Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook. Office Standard is the basic suite of programs, and is the likely entry point for corporate customers.

Probably the biggest change throughout Office 2007 is the ubiquitous use of XML to allow greater interoperability among programs. There is also a new interface element called the Ribbon. These upgrades are present in each of the four pillar applications.

Word Up
Microsoft has redesigned Office Word 2007 for greater ease of use, increased security and more uniformity with other Office programs. The ease of use and uniformity starts with the Ribbon interface, which is a new toolbar that sits at the top of Word 2007. The Ribbon organizes necessary tools and features better than previous iterations of Word. The Ribbon is divided into three sections:

  • Tabs There are seven basic tabs across the top. Each represents an "activity area," as Microsoft calls it, such as Home, Page Layout and Review. The Home tab is used for the most commonly accessed features and functions.
  • Groups Each tab is subdivided into Groups, which include all related tasks. For example, all the commands related to text movement -- like cut, copy and paste -- are grouped in one area on the Home tab.
  • Commands Commands are actionable items like a button or box for entering information.

The less frequently used commands pop up when you use a particular function, like adding a table to a document. This reduces screen clutter and makes it easier for your customers to get at the more commonly used features.

The other significant departure from older Office versions is the move to an XML format for document storage. The Office Open XML (OOXML) format is the new standard. This format adds an "x" to the familiar ".doc" and ".dot" formats, so they will now be labeled ".docx" and ".dotx."

One big advantage of moving to XML is that documents created this way don't accept macros or coding. This helps make them more secure. You can still create documents with macros, however, if you need the added functionality macros provide. It just isn't the default any more.

Customers can easily convert older documents to the new XML format if everyone is on Word 2007. However, the converter is limited to Microsoft Office 2000 SP3, XP SP3 and 2003 SP1 and Windows 2000 SP4, XP SP1 and Windows Server 2003.

Using other office suites like those from Lotus or Sun can be more problematic, since the definition of Microsoft's "Open" XML format depends on who's doing the talking. It's not compatible with the OpenDocument format used by open source office programs like StarOffice.

Microsoft Office 2007

Microsoft Corp.
Release Date: Nov. 30, 2006
Price: $149 for Home/Student Edition, to $399/$239 (retail/upgrade) for Standard and $679/$539 (retail/upgrade) for Ultimate. Professional Plus and Enterprise Editions are available only through volume licensing.
office.microsoft.com/

Still Excellent
Excel hasn't changed much in years, but there are big changes coming with the 2007 version. The Ribbon interface is the biggest change. This serves the same function in Excel as in Word: to organize and present features and functions that may have formerly been hidden behind invisible toolbars or commands buried in menus.

There are context-sensitive menus for commands and features that your customers will need less frequently. For instance, you don't need easy access to the chart commands if you aren't using charts. If you do create a chart, however, the Chart Tools appear and give your customers access to that functionality without having the clutter of toolbars everywhere.

The upgrades brought to Excel through the new XML file format standard are numerous. One of the biggest advantages is a huge increase in acreage. The number of rows on a worksheet has gone from 65,536 to 1,048,576, and the number of columns has increased from 256 to 16,384. Much like Word, it's also easier to keep macros and code out of spreadsheet files. Compression also works better, which will help your customers' store files about 50 percent smaller.

You can save files in older Excel formats, and those users with older versions can open Excel 2007 files with the help of a converter. When they open an Excel 2007 file, they'll be asked to download the converter tool.

Get to the Point
PowerPoint 2007, the latest version of Microsoft's presentation program, gets a transformation similar to Word 2007 and Excel 2007. The Ribbon in PowerPoint 2007 is larger than it is in Word and Excel, but provides exactly the same functionality and ease of use by logically presenting tools and commands. It made these commands visible, instead of hiding them within menus. It also grouped categories of commands together.

As with the other products, XML is at the heart of PowerPoint 2007. It confers many of the same advantages -- more interoperability across programs, more safety in that users can't add macros and code to presentations in the default configuration, and smaller file sizes. With the new XML file format, the "x" is added to the standard ".ppt" extension, so your customers' files will be labeled as ".pptx" files.

Like the other Office 2007 applications, there is a similar level of backwards compatibility. Your customers can save files in older formats and convert files from earlier versions to the XML format.

Optimistic Outlook
The Ribbon in Outlook 2007 looks very similar to the one in Word 2007, albeit slightly stripped down. This makes sense, since the Outlook 2007 editor is based on Word 2007. Like the Ribbon in the other products, Outlook's Ribbon is divided into tabs for specific tasks.

Sending and receiving e-mail is pretty much the same in Outlook 2007 as in previous versions. One nice addition is the ability to preview attachments in the reading pane before downloading or opening them. That will make it easier, for instance, to view pictures you've been sent before downloading them to your computer.

There are several other noteworthy upgrades across Office 2007:

- InfoPath 2007 is integrated, which means you can embed an InfoPath form in an e-mail message, requesting the recipient to fill out the form in the reply.

  • Outlook E-mail Postmark asks the sender's computer to perform a computation or puzzle, and a correct answer is necessary for the e-mail to be sent through. Microsoft claims this process will make it much more difficult and time-consuming for spammers.
  • An improved junk e-mail filter has been added that sweeps out more junk mail. Along with this comes better phishing protection. In suspicious e-mails, Outlook disables links within messages until the user approves them.
  • Outlook exports documents in PDF or XML format.

The new uniformity across the board in these Office pillars, with a consistent user interface, should make it easier for new users to learn the entire suite. And the use of XML as a file format standard should mean smoother data integration between both applications within and outside the Office suite.

With the many different suites, there are lots of price points to appeal to varying budgets. That many offerings can be very confusing, though. Do your homework and know which applications are included with each version of the Office suites, and you'll be well equipped to steer your customers to the version that will suit them best.

Competitive Landscape
Although Office has a huge user base, it's not the only game in town. The three primary competitors are the Lotus SmartSuite, Corel WordPerfect Office X3 and the Sun StarOffice/OpenOffice.

Lotus SmartSuite version 9.8 includes the Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet, Word Pro word processor, Freelance Graphics (presentation program), Approach (spreadsheet/database) and Organizer (personal information manager/day planner). At $235 for the full suite, it's a bargain compared to Office Standard 2007, which checks in at $399. Lotus says it's fully compatible with Office products and can read and write to and from Word, PowerPoint and Excel.

A similar-cost office suite is Corel WordPerfect Office X3, with a sticker price of $250. That gets you a package identical in functionality to Office Standard 2007, including WordPerfect X3, Quattro Pro X3, Presentations X3 and WordPerfect mail.

WordPerfect also offers a small business edition that adds an image editing program, business templates and Norton Internet Security for $299. Like Lotus SmartSuite, it's supposed to be fully interoperable with Office documents.

The low-cost leader is Sun StarOffice 8, which is a $69.95 download. It discounts down to $35 for the Enterprise Edition (schools and research facilities can still get it for free).

If you want most of the functionality of StarOffice, but for free, go to OpenOffice.org and download the suite. The latest version of OpenOffice is 2.1. It lacks some templates, fonts, management capabilities and a few other minor features of StarOffice, but is otherwise exactly the same.

A fairly new entry into this space is Google. Google Docs & Spreadsheets offers online collaboration for word processing and spreadsheets. It's a 100 percent online service that's also free. One cool trick is that users (invited by e-mail address) can work on documents and spreadsheets in real time over the Internet, making changes simultaneously. All they need is a computer with Internet access and a browser.

It's noteworthy that each of these competitive products emphasizes its compatibility with Office as a major selling point. The competitors are well aware of who is the big dog.

Microsoft Office 2007 Suites
 
Basic
Stn1
Std2
Biz3
Pro4
Ult.5
Pro+6
Ent.7
Word
x
x
x
x
x
x
x
x
Excel
x
x
x
x
x
x
x
x
Power
Point
x
x
x
x
x
x
x
Outlook
x
x
x
x

Outlook w/BCM8

x
x
x
Acct. Express9
x
x
x
x
Publisher
x
x
x
x
x
Access
x
x
x
InfoPath
x
x
x
Groove
x
x
OneNote
x
x
x
Commu
nicator
x
x
Int. ECM10
x
x
x
Int. EF
x
x
x
AIR
MPC11
x
x
x

Notes: 1 Office Home & Student 2 Standard 3 Small Business 4 Professional 5 Ultimate 6 Professional Plus 7 Enterprise 8 Outlook with Business ContactManager 9 Accounting Express 10 Integrated Enterprise Content Management 11 Advanced Information Rights Management and Policy Capabilities

Marketing and Sales
Being such a cornerstone product, Microsoft has made voluminous sales and marketing support available for Microsoft Office 2007. Microsoft Office for Partners is the primary portal. It aggregates most of the information you'll need to support your sales efforts. The Office system solution showcase is a terrific resource for partners. It's broken down in several ways. It lists Office 2007 solutions by industry or by department, and gives tactical advice on how to sell Office 2007 to these various groups. There are also scenarios for various tasks, like how Office 2007 can help you address Sarbanes-Oxley issues or contract lifecycle management.

The 2007 Microsoft Office System Partner Licensing Guide will help you wade through the myriad Office suites and licensing programs available, so you can find the right match for your customers.

You can also sell more than just the Office 2007 programs themselves: Microsoft calls them Information Worker Competency Specializations, and you can learn more at the Microsoft Web site. These are peripheral sales opportunities based on Office 2007, including things like Office solutions development, which means using XML and Web services to solve problems; or becoming an expert at Office 2007 deployments, either through new installs or upgrades.

One other new program for Office 2007 is a licensing change that helps system builders bundle the suite with a new computer. The customer can have a 60-day trial of Office 2007, then choose to buy it after the initial PC sale. Previously, this group of partners' main opportunity to sell Office licenses came at the time of the PC purchase. Microsoft stated in a press release that more than 50 percent of small businesses purchase Microsoft Office separately within 60 days of a new PC purchase, representing a potentially significant new source of revenue for system builder partners.

Spotlight Highlights

Key Features

  • Open Office XML file format standard
  • Ribbon interface provides easier access to features
  • Excel spreadsheets now much larger

Competition

  • Lotus SmartSuite
  • Corel WordPerfect Office X3
  • Sun StarOffice 8
  • Google Docs & Spreadsheets

Opportunities

  • Backward compatibility across all applications
  • XML format affords external compatibility
  • Familiar applications ease migration

The Final Word
Office 2007 is a big new product -- and here we've only touched on the fundamental applications. With XML functionality baked in and a new, consistent user interface across the pillar products Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook, there's a compelling story for you to tell your customers.

Even so, selling the upgrade could be an uphill battle. Earlier versions of Office are entrenched and they work well in most companies, so its biggest competition is likely to come from itself. Microsoft is providing plenty of ammunition to take into that battle, though, and Office 2007 has many compelling features and architectural enhancements that should spark interest among your most cost-conscious customers.