Microsoft's Office 12, due out next year, will integrate new technologies that are far less obvious that what could be gleaned from the company's recent sneak preview of software's new user interface. The good news is that the changes taking place underneath the hood of the venerable business-productivity suite are expected to bring a much broader benefit to other applications and processes throughout the enterprise.
Office 12 is transforming from a personal productivity tool to a group productivity collaboration tool, said Jim Murphy, research director at AMR Research. "Here the enabling technology will be SharePoint, which will provide the means whereby documents can be saved on a central server. From there, the very latest document versions can be accessed in real-time by all collaboration participants," he said.
"There's also a need for privacy and security that has to be supported through a move toward the next version," Murphy said. "Across the board, companies need to manage their information more carefully and in more managed ways than before. They need to lock it down more and that's the more attractive part of moving forward with Office 12."
On the Server Side
Office 12 is being constructed right on top of many of the elements of Microsoft's Windows Server, which means it will include a whole new series of technologies, such as Microsoft's SharePoint Server, Form Services, and Excel Services, which are all new elements of the software giant's Office and Information Worker platforms, Microsoft senior vice president Steven Sinofsky told an audience of developers last month.
Today, the term SharePoint merely encompasses Windows SharePoint Services and SharePoint Portal Server, Sinofsky said. Microsoft will begin to use the term to refer to the entire Information Worker Platform on the server, beginning with the release of Office 12.
Moreover, most important out of all the SharePoint Services elements coming into Office 12 is what Sinofsky has characterized as its team project-management capabilities. To foster this development, Microsoft intends to publish a set of program interfaces designed to help connect Office 12 business applications to the software giant's SharePoint server.
"The Portal Server enables you to take those team sites, and those collaborative elements of the work, and bring them to life for the entire enterprise, which will make it possible for the broadest range of users to take advantage of the collaborative framework," Sinofsky said. "And, of course, once you have that, you need to have great search capability."
Enterprise Content Management
With Office 12, Microsoft plans to offer comprehensive content management capabilities that will enable developers and users to search out and manage business content more effectively.
The integration of business processes is another key aspect, one that will feature built-in workflow tools to provide easier access to expense reports and other documents that require reviews and approvals. Data can be integrated "with the rich reporting and analysis capabilities that you have with Microsoft Access and Microsoft Excel," Sinofsky added.
"Over time, the Excel client has become a very popular platform for developing applications," Microsoft senior vice president Bob Muglia told developers last month. "With the Excel Services functionality in Office 12, companies will be able to run these same worksheets on the server."
Maintaining Document Integrity
Another significant change involves the switch to XML as the designated file formats for Office 12's Word, Excel, and PowerPoint applications. Documents created as XML files no longer will feature embedded macros and other executable code. Moreover, Office 12 will include a special-purpose format with a separate file extension for files with embedded code. That way, according to Microsoft, corporate employees will be able to open e-mail messages containing Word, Excel, or PowerPoint attachments without having to worry that the documents they handle might contain harmful code.
Gartner vice president Tom Austin believes that changing Office's file formats is a big risk for Microsoft. "In general, companies don't like file format changes," Austin said. "Clients are going to look at that and say, 'Oh my God. Here comes another forced change.'"
Even though Office 12's adoption of XML might "cause pain in the near term, it is an architectural necessity for moving forward," said AMR's Murphy. "It will be hard to convince people to go back and figure out every macro already in their company and find an alternative means of doing the same thing. But in the long run, having this as a separate engine is going to be more appropriate and more scalable down the line."
From a making-it-work perspective, having a new extension for macros is a good idea, said network security expert Ed Moyle. "It allows virus-checking software in an e-mail to filter on that extension and to search files coming in with that extension more carefully, or to exclude them altogether on a content filtering gateway while allowing the majority of the office docs to pass through without hindrance," Moyle said. "My only concern is making a smooth transition to the new format."
Proceed With Caution
Analysts at Gartner recommended that businesses should proceed with caution with respect to their Office 12 deployment plans. Interoperability across versions and roll-out helper applications remain unclear at this point -- and are subject to change before the suite starts shipping next year.
"The potential advantages of Office 12 sound interesting, although they're hardly earthshaking," said Austin. "Are these the kind of changes that are going to compel companies to rush out and immediately upgrade? We don't think so."
Moreover, Austin warned that nobody really knows what will be in the new suite when the final release comes out. For example, Microsoft initially planned to develop an alternative to Adobe Acrobat PDF for its next Office release. Just recently, however, the software giant did an about-face and gave Office 12 the ability to generate PDF files natively. "So don't make plans on early rumors, demos, and public announcements," Austin said.
In addition, Austin said he thinks the most compelling aspects of Microsoft's future plans don't require any upgrade of Office on the desktop at all. "They're more on the server side."
Analyzing the Migration Costs
For companies that do intend to move quickly to Office 12, migration costs will need to be examined on a case-by-case basis, analysts said.
There are several factors that should not be overlooked when conducting a migration cost analysis for Office 12, including training for both I.T. staff as well as users who must get used to the new interface. In particular, management will need to answer two key questions, said Gartner research director Michael Silver. "Can I move just some people and wait to move others, or do I need to move them all at once? And what will happen to my support costs if I run this mix?"
Another important concern has to do with application testing of macros, access to databases, and so on. Here, Silver said, the main question is, "Do I have tools to get something this large onto my PCs without administrator intervention?"
Uniformity and Security Concerns
Microsoft's Vista OS, Office 12, and related technologies will be reaching even deeper into enterprises than the software giant's offerings do today. Should CIOs be worried about the potential for escalating security risks?
"We've made the argument before about hybrid vigor -- the more homogeneous the environment and the more you standardize on any single vendor's products, the higher the environment's susceptibility to threats," Austin said. "We're not trying to single out Microsoft here, but rather note that heterogeneity allows businesses to tolerate threats more effectively, just as biological diversity allows populations to better tolerate disease."
Moyle agreed that having a "monoculture" -- a lack of population diversity --- makes for an environment in which threats can spread rapidly, but noted that "it's important to keep in mind the difference between events that impact a population at large versus events that impact just one individual in that population."
In Moyle's opinion, a balancing act of sorts is required. "Make diversity too small and you increase the impact of population-level events, make it too diverse and you can reduce manageability and thereby make individual-level events more likely," Moyle noted. "Heterogeneity has to be balanced with manageability for the organization's maximum benefit."