A beta version of the upgraded Microsoft Office 2003 suite has gone out to half a million users. The new Microsoft Office System includes beta 2 versions of five of the world's most popular software programs-Word, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint, and Access-along with two new additions, InfoPath (formerly called XDocs) and OneNote, plus Microsoft Office FrontPage, Publisher, SharePoint Services, and SharePoint Portal Server 2.0. Right-clicking on a highlighted term anywhere in the five basic software packages will call up the Look-Up feature, which introduces a Research Task Pane that links to commercial fee-based search service offerings.
The initial vendor offerings include Factiva's Publications Library, Gale's Company Profiles, and Alacritude's eLibrary. All the vendors partnering with Microsoft require payments, including, in some cases, subscription payments. Users who want access to vendor services can subscribe online immediately.
The XML standard, leveraged throughout the new MS Office, is the ultimate winner in the new upgrade. Users may now even save Word documents in XML. In promoting the service, Microsoft emphasized improvements in access and delivery of business information; better teaming and collaboration tools; and the easing of user work environments through such features as support of Tablet PCs, digital note-taking, better e-mail, and a junk e-mail filter. The system also includes significant Information Rights Management features designed to help network managers assure the legitimacy and appropriateness of document transfers.
An Office add-on to Microsoft Internet Explorer will allow the Research Task Pane to access open Web sources or local networks, using the Smart Tags technology. In addition, the pane accesses a Thesaurus, a Translate option that reaches foreign language dictionaries as well as automated translation services, e.g., for a single word or an entire e-mail message, plus an encyclopedia accessed over the Internet.
To access the Research Task Pane, users can highlight a word and right click or simply hold down the Alt key and click on a word. The Research Task Pane works on Pentium 133MHz or higher processors running Windows 2000 with Service Pack 3, Windows XP or later operating systems.
The Factiva News Search option taps all 8,000 sources compiled in Factiva's Publications Library. Clare Hart, president and CEO of Factiva, commented: "We view this as a long-term collaboration to solve some basic business issues in a modern way. Microsoft Office 2003 promises to be a major platform for exciting new enterprise productivity solutions."
The pricing model for Factiva access remains the same-for individuals, an annual subscription ($79.95) plus $2.95 per document; for enterprises, subscription agreements. Factiva has not yet worked out an integration for Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition subscribers, who also pay the same individual user fees to access the Wall Street Journal, Smart Money, Barrons, etc., and reach the Publications Library.
Factiva committed itself to developing a new XML platform some years ago. This new development appears to be a major pay-off to that commitment. However, the future still holds new developments, including recovery of some functionality. For example, Dow Jones Interactive, the system replaced by Factiva.com, had the ability to link to full-image articles acquired from ProQuest, a functionality not available from Factiva.com. Non-Publications Library databases may be candidates for future Research Task Pane developments, according to Hart, in particular context-sensitive uses built around user needs.
Gale offers over 450,000 company profiles, available for purchase individually or through subscriptions. Through the beta period, individual profiles will cost $35, a six-month subscription, $249, an annual subscription, $399. Each profile includes a business overview, a list of executives, financial data, recent news and announcements, etc. (For a preview of the service, go to http://www.gale.com/bizdev.) Allen Paschal, Gale's president, described the Company Profiles as "Hoover Beaters." The products were not aimed at the library market.
Commenting on the Microsoft connection, Paschal stated: "The opportunities for us and for Microsoft Office Systems users are nothing short of monumental. Through our collaboration with Microsoft, we'll be able to empower millions to be more productive by delivering company profiles where and when they are needed."
Gale's vice president of business development, Scott Smith, added: "We have just scratched the surface of the type of solutions we can deliver through the Microsoft Office environment. We're looking forward to continuing our collaboration with Microsoft to create additional solutions that span our vast content repository."
Both Paschal and Smith disclaimed any attempt to build products that eliminated the need for librarians, a group still seen as the company's core market. Smith viewed the beta test and beyond as a learning experience that could help them "bring technologies and applications to our other service offerings, to bring back lessons for our library products."
Alacritude offers access to the eLibrary service of newspapers, news wires, magazines, journals, transcripts, maps, photographs, and reference sources. The service offers 13 million documents from over 1,000 sources. With eLibrary, article abstracts are free but full document access requires a subscription, though the subscription does offer unlimited access to all documents. Charges are $14.95 a month or $79.95 a year.
Patrick Spain, chairman and CEO of Alacritude, said: "We are thrilled to serve the research needs of so many Microsoft Office customers at the exact moment they have a question. Finding answers to everyday research questions and organizing that information in a meaningful way—without ever leaving the Microsoft Office application—will save information workers huge amounts of time." Alacritude only markets eLibrary to individuals, according to Spain. They do not offer enterprise accounts.
What about future developments and partnerships? A representative from Waggener Eddstrom, Microsoft's longtime P.R. firm, told me that Microsoft would not make a list of vendor partners for the Research Task Pane available. However, a list of vendor partners with Microsoft's established eServices vendor partners does appear on the Web site. Some of them seem to overlap with functions offered by the Research Task Pane, e.g., Microsoft's Encarta Encyclopedia, Bowne Global Solutions' Translation Gateway, WorldLingo, etc. Some eServices vendors are familiar information industry names, e.g., West's WestCiteLink, LexisNexis, ProQuest's XanEdu, BridgeInSight, etc.
The eServices partners rely on Smart Tag technology to make the connection. LexisNexis inaugurated its Smart Tag connections through Microsoft Office back in 1991. When queried about the latest MS Office upgrade, a LexisNexis representative indicated that future announcements might be forthcoming. A ProQuest representative, however, indicated that the company still relied on third parties, such as Factiva, to distribute its material to individual user markets.
The new Research Task Pane approach has the potential to integrate external searching into the daily computer usage of millions. But will they get the best data at the best price? Many institutions' librarians and information professionals have worked hard to build arrays of content specifically designed to serve the needs of their clienteles. The question of whether those arrays of data will integrate with the new feature has already begun circulating.
I asked Marsha Fulton, former developer of Andersen's ASKnetwork, whether the new development posed any risks. She said that even under past and current technology, users would often subscribe to services for which the enterprise already had contracts. "Double buying happened all the time," said Fulton. "Finally, we told the vendors what we would pay and had to set rules that individuals who paid on their own could not expense it. Then we worked with our techies to get the right connections." Fulton worried about companies without librarians looking after their interests. "They're just out of luck. Users will end up spending more money. Once they realize what's going on, they should want to hire professionals to help them find out how not to waste money."
How difficult would the technical connections be? At present the Research Task Pane does not look built for customization, though Microsoft has tools available across its system to do the job. Experts indicate that though the technology is available, it is never easy and some of it will seem to work only or best on all-Microsoft operations.
Steve Arnold, technology guru of Arnold Information Technologies, considered the new feature a great idea. He also commented that Microsoft, its certified developers, its professional development teams, and its vendors would all inform users that customization was possible, but "would need work." Basically, said Arnold, "it just won't work when shipped. It's designed to be installed by pros. They'll need to build the ‘connectoids' between XML and SharePoint… Information [with the new system] is not a simple mouse click away yet, but it will be eventually."
Microsoft Office System products are scheduled for release in mid-2003. Beta testing will continue until Nov. 30, 2003. For more information, go to http://www.microsoft.com/office/preview.