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Microsoft Office 2007 - 'Productivity' Applications

Office 2007 marks a major transition. Microsoft Office started out as a collection of individual desktop productivity applications: the first version of the Office suite in 1989 included a word processor, a spreadsheet, and a presentation program - and a "Pro" version added a database and a scheduler, according to Wikipedia link. But in recent years, the focus of "productivity computing" has shifted from individual productivity to group productivity, from unconnected computers to networks, and from stand-alone applications to client software that works with remote servers.

Microsoft Office has kept up with these trends. Office 2007 is described as a "system" rather than an old-fashioned "suite," and it's a system that's become a big tent. Under the Office tent are 15 desktop applications, and no fewer than 13 server applications and "related products and technologies." Microsoft's official list also includes two Web-based services, Office Live and Live Meeting, and an indeterminate number of "solutions." It's a total of 30 products if you ignore the "solutions" (which you should do, because, as usual, they are all about marketing programs rather than computer functionality.)

Interestingly, of the 15 desktop applications, more than a third - Communicator, Groove, InfoPath, OneNote, Outlook, and SharePoint Designer - can be described as client applications because they depend at least in part on server-based functionality.

That's a change.

Some of these, such as OneNote and Outlook, are covered elsewhere in this package. While these six clients have similarities, they are all different. Outlook, Office's e-mail and calendaring client extrordinaire, you've surely already met. OneNote and Groove are essentially serverless clients that use peer-to-peer technology - OneNote in a simple way to share a data file, Groove in a far more complex way to share a managed workspace. InfoPath and SharePoint Designer are both primarily developer tools, rather than end-user applications, aimed at making it easier to develop applications for the SharePoint portal. Communicator is Microsoft's first try at "applicationizing" presence awareness and tying together its instant messaging with Active Directory.

Groove: A Server-Based Serverless App?
When Microsoft bought Groove in March, 2005, it wasn't clear whether the centerpiece of the deal was the Groove collaboration application or Groove founder Ray Ozzie himself. For a while it looked like it was the latter as Ozzie, the driving force behind Lotus Notes and much of current thinking on collaboration and presence awareness, rose quickly in Microsoft's hierarchy. But Office 2007 gives evidence that Groove and its collaboration technologies were a prize for Microsoft, too.

 

Groove filled a hole in a Microsoft product line-up. Groove provides an "occasionally connected" collaboration model and support for real-time communications and ad hoc creation of managed shared workspaces. There hasn't been much time since the acquisition to integrate Groove into the Microsoft code base. As a result Office Groove 2007 looks pretty much like Groove before the buy-out.

The changes have come under the hood, to make Groove a more manageable participant in the enterprise computing environment. Many of the changes support Office Groove Server 2007, a collection of functions that work to improve network performance by mitigating Groove's impact on network traffic, and interface points for management of Groove. Some of these tie Groove into the Active Directory structure for bulk provisioning of accounts, do usage reporting, enforce security and business rules, give Groove tools and templates access to data in other SharePoint applications, and reduce the impact of peer-to-peer file transfers to large numbers of users on the network optimization.

Fortunately, none of this changes the fundamental nature of Groove. It's still an extremely easy way for a group to work on a project asynchronously and securely across enterprise domains and firewalls. Its peer-to-peer architecture hasn't been changed, so an individual can still create a workspace and invite other participants to share files, make and propagate changes, monitor the presence of other team members in the workspace, and conduct threaded discussions in an offline/online use model.

It will be interesting to see where Microsoft takes Groove. Better integration with OneNote, for instance, should be a high priority, so that notebooks created with OneNote's easy data-collection tools can live in Groove workspaces. There is some integration of Groove's presence awareness with Communicator already, so that Groove users can use IM and voice services to communicate with others in their workspaces. Clearly the Groove acquisition has given Microsoft a boost in its efforts to create credible competition for IBM/Lotus's Domino/Notes/Sametime/Workplace combination.

Communicator: Are You There?
Microsoft introduced Communicator in 2005 as an integrated client for real-time communications through its Live Communications Server 2005. Office Communicator 2005 provides a user interface for instant messaging, SIP-based VoIP and video, PBX-integrated telephony and conference calling, and Web conferencing with Microsoft Office Live Meeting audio. It also functions as an alternative to Outlook to provide access to Exchange e-mail accounts.

Communicator is intended to give businesses an integrated, manageable client for the Live Communications Server. Much like IBM/Lotus's Sametime, Communicator uses server-based presence awareness information - indicators that show who's online and how they're connected - to enable secure IM and connect to public IM services and corporate telephony systems.

Microsoft Office Communicator 2007 won't be released with the rest of Office 2007, but is expected to ship in the second quarter of 2007.

InfoPath and SharePoint Designer: Easy AppDev for the Portal Age
The presence of InfoPath and SharePoint Designer on the list of Microsoft Office 2007 applications is perhaps more about marketing than about real benefit to most users of Microsoft Office. Both applications are development tools for creating or customizing applications to run on the SharePoint Server.

 

InfoPath gives businesses a forms creation and management application they can use to deliver browser-based forms that connect to back-end data collection systems, either through the SharePoint Server or, if they're not running SharePoint, a new Office Forms Server 2007.

InfoPath handles the UI part of the forms-design process and lets designers build forms that can be completed in a browser or in other Office applications. Other application-development tools let programmers create workflows that route these forms for approval or reporting. The most complex workflow applications can be created by developers using the new Workflow Foundation piece of .NET 3.0. For end users, SharePoint Designer supports workflow creation without writing code.

SharePoint Designer 2007 is half of what used to be Office FrontPage, the WYSIWYG Web page creator. With Office 2007, FrontPage vanishes, replaced by SharePoint and Expression Web. SharePoint Designer is geared toward application-development tasks that would formerly have built applications that called the FrontPage Server Extensions, now embedded in the SharePoint Server. Expression Web, not a part of Office 2007, is aimed a professional Web designers. It requires .NET 2.0.

Sorting the Pieces
Not all of these client applications are available in all the eight different versions of Microsoft Office 2007. But this isn't as much of a limitation as it might appear, because the client apps most widely run by end users are also the most widely available.

While the Groove client, for example, is included in only two Office versions (Office Enterprise and Office Ultimate), it's freely distributed as a trial version to PC users invited into Groove workspaces. OneNote is missing from four versions of Office, but available as a stand-alone application for $99. Outlook, perhaps the most widely used of the Office client applications, is inexplicably missing from four versions of Office - perhaps because Microsoft judged that the free and ubiquitous Outlook Express bundled with Internet Explorer was good enough for those markets. InfoPath is included only in the three high-end packages (Office Professional Plus, Office Enterprise, and Office Ultimate), and SharePoint Designer doesn't show up on any list.

Not every Word or PowerPoint user has a clear and present need for SharePoint Designer, to be sure, but the very presence of clients and appdev tools like these say a good deal about the future of Microsoft Office - and perhaps about the future of desktop computing.

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