Office, Part XI Does the newly revamped Microsoft small business offering make the (up)grade?
(FORTUNE Small Business) – The previous ten versions of Microsoft Office have forced a lot of us to develop an upgrade ritual: Install software. Learn about the hundreds of new features. Never touch a single one of them. With this month's release of Office 2003, Microsoft continues its quest to give businesses a reason to update software that's probably already working just fine. Will this version of Office Small Business Edition ($279 for an upgrade) have users repeating the same ritual?
To find out, I spent a year with various versions of the new program, which includes Word; Excel; Outlook for e-mail, contact management, and scheduling; Publisher, a desktop publishing program; and the new Business Contact Manager. Microsoft has also added PowerPoint, acknowledging that even small businesses make presentations. And this time around, instead of stuffing still more features into Word and Excel, Microsoft has focused on the suite's more lightly used tools.
Because Microsoft knows we're all slaves to our e-mail, Outlook has received the most significant face-lift. The in-box now displays more messages and a larger window for reading. If you get e-mail while you're in another program, a translucent window displays a preview of incoming messages, eliminating the need to switch over to Outlook. Microsoft has also added effective spam filters; I've seen a 75% reduction in junk with no real mail getting trashed. That's on a par with most blocking software and should prove adequate for most users--which means you won't have to pay the $50 a person that those programs can cost.
The new Business Contact Manager, accessed through Outlook, lets users track customers' contact information and link it to other files. The program is easy to use, but it feels incomplete: Because information cannot be shared among users, only one person at a time can access a customer's phone number or handle a complaint. Any but the tiniest of businesses would be better off using something like ACT, Salesforce.com, or Intuit's new Customer Manager software.
Otherwise the suite offers a few small surprises. PowerPoint now can copy a presentation to a CD-ROM that will play on any PC, even one without PowerPoint--great for trade shows. Publisher, an effective program for producing business cards and brochures, now includes nifty applications for creating Websites and newsletters. And I liked the research task window in Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, which lets you search the Web from Office.
So should you upgrade? "Office 2003 is better [than previous versions]," says Rob Enderle of the Enderle Group in San Jose, "but it still feels like a rebundling of a corporate product for small business needs." Despite that, Microsoft's pricing scheme may make the decision easier. If Outlook is all you need, buy the stand-alone product for $109. However, if PowerPoint ($229) or Publisher ($169) are also must-haves, buying Office makes more sense, as it costs only $279 to upgrade and $449 for new customers. There'll still be new features you'll never use, but at these prices, it's not so painful to ignore them.