Office has been on the market for many years and even before the newest version, Microsoft had plenty of time to use its considerable resources to outclass its competition in terms of both features and marketing. As a result, Office has long been ubiquitous - hundreds of millions of people use Office in every part of the world.
In other words, the incumbent version of Office (Office XP) is a hard act to follow. It already does just about everything that most consumers, professional and students would want to do with a suite of programs.
With that in mind, Microsoft is out to convince customers to shell out money to upgrade. Just how much money depends on who you are and where you buy it.
The standard edition costs $239 for an upgrade or $399 for a new copy. An upgrade to the small business edition is $279 or $449 for a new copy. Office Professional is $329 and $499 respectively, though big organizations get volume pricing.
If you live in one of the 52 percent of American homes with a student or a teacher, you can get a specially priced version of the standard edition for $149. That edition can be legally installed on three computers in your household and it's not just an upgrade. You don't need to own an old version of Office to use it.
But - at the risk of sounding like a Ginsu knife commercial - there's more.
I don't know if any of these deals will be around as you read this, but as I was writing this column, some retailers were offering $300 of free hardware for people who spent $149 for the Office Student and Teacher Edition.
I'm not usually a sucker for ''deals,'' but OfficeMax was giving away a Hewlett-Packard color printer, a 2-megapixel HP digital camera and a 32-megabyte memory card with every copy of Office. That deal may be gone or about to expire, but it's tempting me to buy an extra copy of Office just to get the free hardware.
So, deals aside, is Office worth it? For many, the answer depends on how much time they spend dealing with e-mail. While Microsoft has made improvements to all of its applications, the one improvement that jumps out at you is the new version of Outlook, the e-mail and personal information management program.
Outlook has long been a program that users love to hate. It's always been powerful and flexible, but the old version was a bit awkward to use and sometimes slow and buggy. Even not counting my spam, I get hundreds of e-mail messages a week and many contain important information that I need to get back to. Outlook has an improved and faster search system and the ability to create search folders.
Here's how they work. You enter in a search string such as name, company or e-mail address and Outlook finds all occurrences. You then select ''Save search as search folder'' and it creates a folder with pointers to every message that contains that string. As new messages with that text arrive, a virtual copy is placed in that folder. To save time and disk space, the message itself isn't copied, just a pointer to the message.
Speaking of spam, Outlook now has spam filters that do a pretty good job of filtering out junk mail. You can set them for low – which gets rid of most but not all mail or high which gets rid of the vast majority of mail but raises the risk that it might also trap legitimate messages. Suspected spam is saved in a junk mail folder so you can review it and indicate if you do want to hear from the sender in the future.
They have also added a new reading pane to Outlook that lets you view the content of a message on the right side of the screen even before you open it. This makes it much easier to preview or even read your messages.
The interface also makes it easier to switch between functions like the e-mail section, calendar and contact list.
There's also a new notification screen that pops up in the lower right corner of your screen to let you know when a new message arrives. It's shaded so that it's subtle enough not to disturb you, but informative enough to tell you who the message is from.
While the changes in Outlook are obvious and dramatic, the improvements to the rest of the suite don't jump out at you. Microsoft added a reading view to Word, which presents your document in a form that's easier to read on screen. It also presents you with miniaturized thumbnails of each page and the ability to read pages side by side. This is especially helpful if you're reviewing long documents.
Word along with Excel and other Office programs now have a research task pane that lets you open a dictionary, thesaurus, encyclopedia or web site without leaving the program. Microsoft touts this as a great new feature for students, but I can't find anything here that you can't easily find on the web. It is a bit more integrated and may be easier for some people to access, but it doesn't provide you with any new information sources.
Microsoft has made some other subtle changes to Excel and Word that make it a bit easier to discover some of the advanced features that have long been built into these powerful yet underutilized programs.
There is also a new program called Microsoft Office Picture Manager that comes with Office. Microsoft isn't trumpeting this new feature, but it should. It's the fastest and easiest photo organizer I've tried. It also lets you perform simple edits on your pictures such as cropping, sizing or red-eye removal.
There are lots of changes ''under the hood'' that are mostly interesting to corporate and campus users. One feature that may interest small businesses, students and nonprofits is the ability to collaborate over the Internet. There is built-in support for Microsoft Sharepoint, a web-based collaboration service available through bcentral.com, that allows you to create a shared work space on the company's servers so you and a colleague can collaborate on documents stored on a server that's accessible to both of you, even if you're continents apart.
Bottom line: If you're a heavy Outlook user, the upgrade may be worth it for that feature alone. Corporations looking for some advanced programmable features will find them in Office 2003. If you have a really old version of Office such as Office 97, you're going to get plenty of across-the-board improvements, but Office 2003's most worthy competitor is Office XP - the version that came out a couple of years ago.
Of course, if you can find still find one of those deals that gives away $300 worth of hardware with every copy of Office, I'd say go for it in a heartbeat, especially if you qualify for the $149 student-teacher edition.
By Larry Magid