The office productivity apps – word processing, spreadsheet and presentation software – are so much a core part of the enterprise that it seems difficult to imagine what we ever did without them.

And, now, at long last, we have Microsoft Office 2007, the latest release from the king of the office suite.

The purpose here isn’t to review the product, but, from working with a beta version, I have to say that I’m impressed. There are all kinds of enhancements to each of the component applications, but the most striking change is to the user interface. A group of tool bars are provided in what is called a ribbon. The intent is to make it easier to find commands. The tool bars change dynamically depending on which task the user is working. It takes some getting used to, but I find the net result positive.

The real question, though, is how much Office is too much Office? The answer to that will determine whether IT departments will take the plunge and upgrade, or stay with the status quo for now. After all, these tools have come a long way from their humble beginnings. Not many remember that Word and Excel were originally developed for the Macintosh, years before Microsoft managed to create a mediocre version of Apple’s user interface and call it Windows.

To Microsoft’s credit, however, both Word and Excel were far superior to Apple’s original application software, and, amazingly, each of them fit on a single floppy disk. I still have mine.

So here we are, many iterations later, with products that already have far more features than anyone could ever use. This will be a tough call for many CIOs and IT managers, especially when there are eight versions of Office 2007 from which to choose.

And, of course, there are other alternatives to upgrading rather than staying with the status quo. A company may choose to switch to a competitive product. Corel’s WordPerfect Office X3 is still on the market, and there are some free or near-free alternatives – Sun’s StarOffice 8, ThinkFree’s ThinkFree Online and OpenOffice.org 2.0. All claim matching or near-matching functionality to the market leader.

With the possible exception of WordPerfect, however, these products are definitely lacking on the user interface front. Consequently, any IT department would have to weigh the cost savings against potential productivity loss and training costs during a switch.

Time will tell how this plays out, but I personally don’t foresee much conversion to these alternative products. The price is right, but there’s a lot be said for staying with the market leader, if only to maintain compatibility with others who are working with the leading product.

However, I’m not convinced that sales of Office 2007 will be brisk either. The new features are attractive, but, in many cases, not attractive enough to justify the cost of upgrading.

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