A Closer Look: IM in Office 2003

We examine how components of the new Microsoft Office System Beta 2 Kit leverage instant messaging and presence.
Collaboration is shaping up to be the name of the game this year for a number of the largest enterprise software vendors.

IBM Lotus is already embarking on a strategy to share Sametime IM and collaboration services with its other applications; Oracle's application server group and Sun's Web portal unit each are gearing up to improve their offerings' collaborative features with greater uses of presence.

Microsoft , meanwhile, is poised to launch an all-out assault with a slew of interrelated productivity and communications products starting around mid-year.

One of the first salvos will come in the form of the latest iteration of Redmond's Office suite of productivity tools. Now rebranded Microsoft Office System, the suite ships with a hefty complement of apps: in addition to the well-known "core" applications like Word, PowerPoint, Excel, Outlook and Access, the Beta 2 Kit we reviewed also includes Windows SharePoint Services (and the enterprise-geared SharePoint Portal Server "v2"), FrontPage, Publisher, and OneNote and InfoPath, two additions to the proliferating Office family.

SharePoint points the way

Chief among the suite's new collaborative features is Microsoft Windows SharePoint Services -- a product geared entirely toward joint project work.

For those unfamiliar with the offering (previously known as SharePoint Team Services,) the application revolves around user-created sites that serve as repositories for shared team documents and central locations for online projects and chats. These sites can be made open and accessible to users from a particular domain -- enabling colleagues to discover and work with a peer's or another group's SharePoint site.

The new version of Windows SharePoint Services included in Office System 2003 adds presence awareness, based on users' availability on the .NET Service or Exchange Instant Messaging. As a result, colleagues' and partners' statuses are syndicated through SharePoint documents, lists, calendars, discussions, and surveys. Members also can choose to receive notifications via IM (if online) when SharePoint site content changes.

Ideally, this setup eases the task of finding and working with peers and partners. As a result, that's a feature likely to catch the eye of large organizations, who increasingly are looking to better manage their internal knowledge bases by making use of Web portals and integrated IM and presence.

In another major overhaul, users can now create live SharePoint sites directly from within Office applications, working on documents with their colleagues and spawning chat sessions. That's a marked improvement from attempting to work with a colleague using the awkward Online Collaboration command from Office 2000 applications, which relied on the powerful but dated and often-overlooked Windows NetMeeting as its core vehicle for document sharing, and IM and video conferencing. (For one thing, embedded presence in the new setup makes it easier to detect a colleague's availability than had been the case under NetMeeting, which typically required logging into a prearranged ILS server. Its fans will appreciate that the suite still supports NetMeeting collaboration, however.)

The guts of Microsoft Office System

While SharePoint provides site-based collaboration that's tied neatly into Office 2003's core applications -- including Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, and Outlook -- those central apps also benefit from embedded IM and alerting.

The key is having peers' IM handles already registered in users' Outlook Contact Lists and, more than likely, also on the Exchange Server. After that, special fields in Word, Excel, and the like are supposed to reflect colleagues' availability, and each application can spawn instant messaging sessions.

In Word 11, Word documents can recognize and glean presence information for contacts that a user types into a document, with some caveats: the contact must have been e-mailed from Outlook 2003, and must be a .NET Service / Microsoft Passport user. The mechanism for embedded presence is handled throughout much of the Office suite through XML-based "Smart Tags," which show whether contacts are available for chatting on mouseover.

Similar features are supposed to be available in Excel and PowerPoint, but I couldn't get them to function either. Additionally, in Word, I could only get this to work consistently if a contact used their main e-mail address as their .NET Service/Passport ID -- having a main e-mail address that differed from their MSN Messenger username means the two can't be linked (at least in this beta).

Outlook does a better job of leveraging its presence-related improvements. Building on progress made in Office XP, e-mail, meeting views, and the Contact List reflect users' availability -- so if my editor, Kevin, is online, I can right-click on his name to initiate an IM session, or can click to send him an e-mail. Calendars, Tasks and Contact Lists also can be perused and edited by two parties simultaneously.

Despite some problems -- this is a beta release, after all -- Microsoft seems to be making progress in integrating presence into these applications. That's especially the case for enterprises using SharePoint, which makes it very easy for a user to locate an online peer, begin chatting about a current project, and then move into full-fledged document-sharing.

For businesses already doing much of their communications using Microsoft Outlook and MSN Messenger or Exchange Messenger, I expect that the presence-enabled features of Office 2003 will make the often-overused adjective "seamless" actually seem appropriate here: when Smart Tags' contact recognition is working properly, an impressive amount of collaboration can be handled entirely from within a single Office 11 application, obviating the need to use Messenger to repeatedly swap documents with incremental changes.

Microsoft Project receives an overhaul as well. Project Server integrates with SharePoint Services to centrally organize and track Project activity, which in turn ties it back into SharePoint's Document and Meeting Spaces, with their embedded presence.

What's become of the apps I once knew?

Office is one component in Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft's big push into collaborative enterprise applications. In addition to groupware-enabling its popular Microsoft Office suite of productivity tools, the software giant also is readying efforts like its "Greenwich" Realtime Collaboration Server, which features IM and can serve as a foundation for other presence-enabled enterprise communications, like videoconferencing. (Indeed, Greenwich will serve presence and IM to Office, replacing the need for enterprises to use the public .NET Messaging Service and aging Exchange Instant Messaging.)

In many ways, Greenwich represents an overhaul of the concept behind Exchange Instant Messaging with the addition of powerful new communications technologies. The Office System 2003 Beta 2 Kit, on the other hand, suggests that Microsoft's product lineup is maturing by not only introducing important, new components (like the suite's support for XML) but through firming existing products' integration with each other, and with now-ubiquitous services like MSN Messenger / Windows Messenger.

Of course, much remains before Office 2003 ships later this year. Many of the new features in the Office System are controversial (like the suite's support for Microsoft-flavored XML) or, indeed, very much still in flux (for instance, it's not clear whether OneNote and the XML form-creator InfoPath will make it into the final version.) Other features, like presence-detection in the core Office 2003 apps, remains flaky. And some applications, like Publisher, seem to have missed out on IM and SharePoint improvements entirely.

Yet the overall direction that Office is taking by threading collaborative tools throughout the suite suggests that the product's designers are fully appreciative of the potential for workplace IM and presence, and of the ways in which everyday business users might truly begin using groupware -- instead of just ignoring tools like NetMeeting.

Christopher Saunders is managing editor of InstantMessagingPlanet.com.






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