No, we’re not done with Office 2003 coverage just yet. I’m still faxing folks via my integrated Venali account mentioned in the previous column, but there’s certainly more nuggets to be mined in Office 2003.
The two most obvious are OneNote and InfoPath. Two newcomers to the suite, they’ve actually managed to frighten a few of my smaller customers who simply don’t want to learn anything new right now: “I don’t need this; I just want to see my Excel files.”
First off, don’t be so sure you don’t want these two applications. Second, if you don’t, no one is forcing you to use them. InfoPath comes mandatory only with the Office 2003 Professional Edition, and OneNote is optional altogether. All other SKUs come only with the Office applications you already know anyway.
In a previous column, I characterized OneNote as being available only for Tablet XP, mainly because OneNote is well-designed to take notes using Tablet XP’s handwriting recognition engine and then turn those scribblings into standard Office document fare. I promptly got a call from Microsoft asserting that anyone could use OneNote whether they were using a tablet or not. I recently installed OneNote on a nifty new Toshiba Portege R100, an ultra-light but not Tablet-capable notebook, and took it along to our Honolulu testing facility, where walking around and taking notes is a big part of the gig.
Conclusion? Sure, it works on the laptop, but I can’t for the life of me figure out why I’m clicking on OneNote and not on Word. There’s no discernable advantage, at least for my method of working. Your best bet here is to let your users try OneNote and decide for themselves if its features appeal to them without a tablet underneath. For tablet users, on the other hand, I still think it’s a real nifty digital pad.
InfoPath is a different matter. There are plenty of discernable advantages here, though mostly only for enterprises already using XML internally. Frankly, XML integration is the big cherry on top of Office 2003’s cake. And while getting all of it to work with existing XML documents or XML services will certainly take some tweaking, Microsoft seems to have done an acceptable job at keeping its XML feature set as standards-compatible as possible. I’m still testing that one out, though, so you may see a recalcitrant rant in a future issue.
InfoPath excels at providing end-users with what amounts to a direct XML document creation front end. Forms and similar structured documents are definitely InfoPath’s bread and butter, but what's cool is the ease with which the software allows users to grab information from existing Office documents and pump new information back at them. It’s also very easy to "publish" InfoPath documents where other users can access them, again highly relevant for online forms, which is very much what InfoPath seems aimed at if you’re a beginner.
But with a little practice and probably some training, XML-oriented enterprises can find a thousand and one uses for InfoPath. Using XML, Office 2003, and back-end servers such as Exchange Server 2000 or higher, you can already put together a highly functional Office-based intranet. InfoPath can quickly become not only the document generation engine in such a scheme, but an excellent workflow component, especially if IT departments pay close attention to user roles and permissions.
A few months ago, I was a mite grumpy at yet another Office release. It meant more learning curve in order to accomplish basically the same tasks. I’m still on the fence about how much additional functionality Word and Excel really need; but applications like InfoPath have enough potential to make the entire learning curve worthwhile. Check it out if you haven’t already.