Petreley's column: Office 2000: Collaborating is terrific

For the first time in ages, I'm actually looking forward to getting the latest copy of something published by Microsoft. I'm anxious to take a good look at Office 2000, because it appears as if Microsoft is finally pushing the suite in directions far more useful than detachable menus and talking paper clips.

Keep in mind, however, that my knowledge of Office 2000 is limited to the recent Microsoft marketing hype, and because such hype is often reality-challenged, there may be a considerable margin of error in my assumptions. That's not to imply that Microsoft's marketing hype is always unreliable. Even as a longtime critic of the company, I must admit that Microsoft occasionally flirts with the truth. Well, perhaps "flirt" is too strong a word. Let's just say Microsoft sometimes honks and waves as it drives by her house.

Here's what Office brings to the table that I find so intriguing: Given that you have the right Microsoft server software running on Windows NT, Office 2000 should let multiple people collaborate on documents stored on the server rather than on any single person's machine. Think of it as Microsoft's conceptual equivalent of Lotus Notes, except that it doesn't seem to involve replication, it doesn't have granular security, it is supported only on Windows, and it has better integration with Office.

As Linux continues to take the market by storm and the corporate masses become spoiled by features such as stability, Microsoft is tacitly conceding that some corporations may not want to adopt Windows NT. So Microsoft suggests that ISPs should adopt Windows NT in order to provide Office 2000 collaboration services.

It's actually a very clever scheme for Microsoft to leverage the ubiquity of Office to get more Internet service providers to use Windows NT. Until now, Microsoft hasn't done very well in this market segment for two reasons. First, ISPs exist primarily to give clients access to open services and protocols; this denies Microsoft any leverage to force Windows NT into the picture.

Second, Windows NT doesn't stand up to the heavy-load characteristics of an ISP. The failure of Windows NT to handle the Hotmail service can attest to this, which makes me suspect this scheme won't work. If the collaboration features strain the operating system in any way, both Microsoft and ISPs are in for some embarrassing times.

This attempt to escalate a Windows NT lock-in has at least one other thing going against it: Office 2000 probably won't create a stampede toward document collaboration simply because not everyone wants to collaborate on work, even when they should. That's a problem that has plagued Lotus Notes for years. As the proverb goes, "There are two secrets to success: 1. Don't tell anyone everything you know."

Microsoft sings a good tune about how it is now focusing on the knowledge worker, but it misses the point that people often don't want to share their knowledge because keeping it proprietary sometimes advances one's career more than sharing it. Granted, it's a rather self-centric model of the world, but that simply makes it one that Microsoft, of all companies, should understand.

Ironically, Office 2000 might actually advance one of Microsoft's nightmares -- network computing. According to Microsoft President Steve Ballmer, "[Office Server Extensions] lets you access information anywhere from devices that are not personal computers. The personal computer as a device will remain central to this vision, but it will be augmented in a variety of ways."

This sounds revolutionary coming from the same company that labeled Internet appliances as a depressing, small-minded vision. But Ballmer's comment sounds a lot like Microsoft is preparing its customers for information appliances, doesn't it?

If so, you can say you read it here first. Almost exactly a year ago I predicted that, because network computing makes so much sense, like it or not, Microsoft would eventually have to "invent" it. (See "The network computer is dying of OS/2-itis, but the question is, who cares?," www.infoworld.com/printlinks.)Despite my skepticism about the details, I'm still looking forward to playing with Office 2000 and its collaboration features. How about you?

Nicholas Petreley is editorial director of LinuxWorld (www.linuxworld.com). Reach him at nicholas_petreley@infoworld.com, and visit his forum at www.infoworld.com.

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