Should You Upgrade to Microsoft Office 2003?

The answer depends on how you use the Office suite now and how you want to use it in the future.

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ach time Microsoft introduces a major product upgrade, users ask whether they should invest the time and money in it. With the launch of Microsoft Office 2003 System last October, the question has taken on more significance than for most earlier upgrades because the company improved some functions and added some new ones. So the decision depends on how important those improved and new features are to the way you use Office—and even more important, how you want to use it in the future.

To help you make an informed choice, this article will outline Office 2003’s major improvements and new functions.

A brief explanation of Microsoft’s product-naming and application-bundling conventions is necessary. Traditionally, when you think of Microsoft Office, you think of a suite, or collection, of four core applications: Word, Excel, Outlook and PowerPoint; that hasn’t changed. However, as you’ll discover, Microsoft has added a number of features to the core group to enhance user productivity.

To make sure we’re all on the same page, let’s take a moment to define what Microsoft means when it uses terms such as version , system and edition . A version is a generational release of a family of products—for example, Office XP and Office 2003 are versions of the Office suite. All the products that make up a version—the various Office suites and the other individual products and services (from Internet Explorer to Paint, the art application)—together are defined as a system . An edition is a subset of a version—Office 2003 Professional Edition or Office 2003 Small Business Edition, for example. Each edition is targeted to a specific customer group; as a result, in addition to the four core applications, each has a unique combination of additional applications and features.

Exhibit 1
Professional Edition 2003

$499 retail/$329 upgrade

Word 2003

Excel 2003

Outlook 2003

PowerPoint 2003

Access 2003

Publisher 2003

Outlook 2003 (with Business Contact Manager)

Support for XML and Information Rights Management (IRM) content creation and authoring

  Small Business Edition 2003

$449 retail/$279 upgrade

Word 2003

Excel 2003

Outlook 2003

PowerPoint 2003

Publisher 2003

Outlook 2003 (with Business Contact Manager)

  Standard Edition 2003

$399 retail/$239 upgrade

Word 2003

Excel 2003

Outlook 2003

PowerPoint 2003

  Student and Teacher Edition 2003

$149 retail/Upgrade not available

Word 2003

Excel 2003

Outlook 2003

PowerPoint 2003

Let’s look at what Microsoft is serving up in this latest upgrade. Exhibit 1 , above, lists the available editions of Microsoft Office 2003 and their prices, which were obtained from . Exhibit 2 , at right, shows all the other products in the Office 2003 System and their prices.

Exhibit 2
Individual products Retail price/upgrade price
Access 2003 $229/$109
Excel 2003 $229/$109
FrontPage 2003 $199/$109
InfoPath 2003* $199/Not available
OneNote 2003* $199 ($99 after rebate)/Not applicable
Outlook 2003 $109/Not available
PowerPoint 2003 $229/$109
Project 2003 $599/$349 (Both prices for Project Standard 2003)
Publisher 2003 $169/$99 (After rebate)
Visio 2003 $199/$99.95 (Both prices for Visio Standard 2003)
Word 2003 $229/$109
Live Communications Server 2003* $1,059 (Server + 5 licenses)
SharePoint Portal Server 2003 $5,619 (Server + 5 licenses)
Live Meeting* $0.35/minute (Pay-per-use)
*New product for 2003.  

Notice some products have two prices: A higher one for new buyers (the customer’s computer never had an Office version installed) and a lower price for a license to upgrade from an older version. To qualify for the upgrade price, you must have an earlier version of Microsoft Office. It need not be the immediate former version, Office 2002. It could be XP, 2000 or back through version 6.0; even Microsoft Works qualifies. The Student and Teacher Edition is sold for noncommercial use only; teachers, students or parents of a student in K–12 or college qualify.

Neither exhibit includes prices for the Professional Enterprise Edition, which is available only to customers in the Microsoft Volume license program, and its price depends on the number of licenses acquired. That edition includes all the applications in the Professional Edition plus InfoPath, a new tool used to assemble all sorts of data—from loan-application information to survey results.

What makes Microsoft Office unique and relatively user-friendly is that each product is tightly integrated with its generational peers—that is, all the products in Office 2003 work best when used with other Office 2003 products. That is not to say an Office 2003 product such as Word would be incompatible with an Office XP Word, but the likelihood of problems increases as the time span between editions widens—as users of earlier versions of Office can confirm. Compatibility between distant generations is not always easy to achieve, but the good news is that Office 2003 users have reported relatively few compatibility bugs.

Office 2003 is the first Office version to feature support for extensible markup language (XML) (for more on XML, see “Finally, Business Talks the Same Language,” JofA , Aug.00, page 24, and “ A Napster for Financial Data? JofA , Jan.03, page 66). With XML built in, you can easily save Word and Excel documents as native XML files, providing an enormous enhancement of your data-handling and data-analysis abilities.

With XML built in, you can open and edit existing XML documents in spreadsheets and databases and create presentations with charts that automatically update when new data become available. In addition, you now can easily import and export data into various accounting applications (most of which are now XML-enabled), allowing for more streamlined reporting.

The XML software in the Professional Edition is far more robust and customizable than in the Standard and Small Business editions. The extended XML support in the Professional Edition lets you customize your XML schema; thus you can decide which information you wish to capture and what you want to do with it.

For those on network servers, the Professional Edition also features support for Information Rights Management (IRM) , a security function designed to protect intellectual property. However, IRM requires that your system run under Windows Server 2003 (not an earlier edition) and you also must purchase the IRM service. The price of these extra services depends on the number of licensed users.

With IRM you can protect your digital property by assigning security settings to your documents. In Outlook, for example, you can protect a message by preventing recipients from forwarding, copying or printing a message. You also can automatically encrypt messages so only authorized users can open them.

In Word and Excel documents, IRM lets you assign authorized users specific roles: viewer, reviewer and editor. Unauthorized users can’t perform any tasks. You also can restrict printing and set dates after which no one can open the document.

Shared Workspace is another powerful tool in Office 2003; it allows real-time collaboration. When teamed with SharePoint Services (which is bundled with Windows Server 2003), a user can save a file to a Shared Workspace location; there team members can review it and post comments—all in real time.

WORD 2003
Not much was added to or enhanced for Word. The only significant changes were improvements in Reviewing and Comments and the addition of Research Pane .

Reviewing and Comments now display both in-text comments and encapsulated comments (balloons) and the text is positioned more conveniently in the margins, thus preserving the document’s layout while making it easier to track changes.

Research Pane is a new function that lets you simultaneously reference a dictionary, thesaurus and encyclopedia via the Internet without leaving Word. An example of the Research Pane is shown at right.

The new Word also works better with a Tablet PC, allowing you to use a pen input device to write and draw directly on the page.

EXCEL 2003
The only significant addition to Excel was XML and the collaboration feature, as noted above. The screenshot below shows an example of an XML document in Excel. Users can adjust the XML Source pane on the upper right to control the structure of an XML document. The fields in the main window can be used to input data. Once data are entered, the information then can be represented graphically, as shown in the lower part of the screenshot, at right.

Those who use Excel for statistical analysis will be especially pleased by the enhancements in functions such as Probability Distributions .

New and easier-to-implement slideshow transitions and animations were added to PowerPoint. In addition, a function called Package for CD was added. It lets you save directly onto a CD or a memory stick not only your presentation and the PowerPoint viewer but any linked document or other file you may want to include. What makes this especially useful is that you can save a complete customized presentation to a portable storage device, which then can be plugged into any computer, whether or not it’s loaded with the PowerPoint application software.

The Package for CD screen (below) shows how easily you can set up this option.

The best reason, other than XML capability and collaboration, to upgrade to Office 2003 is the new Outlook—Office’s organization tool, which handles e-mail, contact and calendaring functions. Microsoft has added many new features to make it more powerful and easier to use.

Now you can access multiple e-mail accounts including Hotmail. You can move the Reading Pane (known as the Preview Pane in earlier editions) to the right-hand side of the screen and position it vertically instead of horizontally. This allows you to view more of a message without scrolling—although many users are opting to turn off the scrolling feature as a way to avoid the danger of accidentally clicking on infected e-mails that slip through their virus-protection software. You also can change view settings for individual folders—using the Reading Pane in some folders but not in others.

You can organize mail folders by date, subject, importance or topic. The sort-by-date feature is particularly useful: It groups messages from today, yesterday, this week, last week, two weeks ago, last month and older.

If your inbox is large and you frequently search for certain messages, you can save your commonly used search models as a Search Folder . For example, a search folder named Bob Smith could contain all messages from Bob Smith (regardless of which mail folder they are stored in); the folder automatically will update itself by conducting a search every time you open Search Folder .

You also can flag messages with one of several colored flag symbols and they will be moved to a Flagged Message folder. See screen below for an illustration of some of these features.

Microsoft has enhanced Outlook to move seamlessly from Connected (to the Internet) to Offline modes. This change makes it easier to work in wireless environments, where Internet connections may come and go, without disrupting your work. Although this function works well with the Exchange 5.5 and 2000 e-mail servers, it’s most effective with Exchange 2003.

Outlook has added an effective junk e-mail catcher, too. You can train it to send the spam to a special folder or automatically erase the e-mails (see screenshot below).

If you’re involved in collecting and managing data, you’ll be pleased with the addition of InfoPath to Office 2003. The program not only quickly and easily develops data-collection forms but also then distributes the data via e-mail or the Shared Workspace . InfoPath takes advantage of the XML capabilities in Office 2003, allowing you to collect data in XML format to be used in other applications. Forms created in InfoPath may soon replace similar forms in older Excel editions.

InfoPath must be purchased as a standalone product—that is unless you buy the Office 2003 Professional Enterprise Edition.

If you’ve ever wanted to use your computer as a note-taking tool, OneNote makes that possible. Although it was designed especially for Tablet PCs, it still functions adequately on a regular computer.

Think of OneNote as a virtual spiral notebook: You can type notes, highlight text and even draw diagrams or jottings in the margins with a pen input device. It’s better to have such information in OneNote , rather than in Word because it’s easier to rearrange the text and drawings. This may be the first of the so-called “killer apps” to take advantage of Tablet PC’s capabilities.

As you can see, the Office 2003 System boasts a number of new features, but not all will be useful to everyone. Take a look at the capabilities and decide whether they meet any existing or future needs in your organization. If all you want is simple word processing and spreadsheets, then your existing Office suite may be sufficient.

JOHN D. McCALL, MCP (Microsoft certified professional), is the systems administrator at Corporate Communications Group Inc., Overland Park, Kansas. He formerly was the network administrator and webmaster for Boomer Consulting Inc., Manhattan, Kansas. His e-mail address is .


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