Microsoft preps Project 2003

Breaking its usual two-year upgrade cycle, Microsoft Corp. is getting ready to launch Project 2003, the next version of its project planning and management tool, the Redmond, Washington, vendor said Wednesday.

Project 2002, launched in June last year, is being updated this quickly so Microsoft can fit the product into its Office System 2003 release cycle, Microsoft said. Project 2003 now carries an Office label, like other Microsoft products including Visio and Real-Time Communications Server.

Project 2003 also offers several new features, including integration with Office applications, designed to simplify enterprise use of the product, said Giovanni Mezgec group product manager for Project at Microsoft.

Project Server 2003 will link with Outlook 2003 and with Windows SharePoint Services in Windows Server 2003, allowing users to access and change project information using tools they might already work with, Mezgec said.

Also, Project 2003 Server offers more possibilities to link it to other IT systems. Microsoft partners can help companies tie Project to an ERP (enterprise resource planning) system, for example, to access all kinds of data used in handling projects, Mezgec said.

Binu Alex, a business consultant in charge of the Project 2002 implementation at Fairfax, Virginia-based consulting firm American Management Systems Inc., (AMS) said he wonders if the enhancements will really allow his users to do more with Project.

"To me the enhancements sound more like more bells and whistles than that it will dramatically alter what we are doing. Although anything that makes it easier to use is good," he said. About 120 people at AMS use Project, the company does not use Outlook or SharePoint Services, he said.

Microsoft did need to come out with a new Project release and users have been asking for enhancements, according to Melinda Ballou, a senior research analyst with Meta Group Inc. of Stamford, Connecticut

"I think that the momentum behind the 2002 release, demand on part of the client base to put in additional functionality, and an increased responsiveness on the part of the Project team, combine to have them come out with this release in a more timely fashion, which is a good thing for them and the clients as well," she said.

Microsoft Project has been available as a stand-alone desktop planning tool for more than a decade. Project Server was first released with Project 2002 and has attracted about 1,000 customers. Some users are still in trial stages, while others have deployed it, according to Mezgec. Microsoft Project is a low-end alternative to planning products from vendors including Primavera Systems Inc. and Niku Corp.

Microsoft Office Project 2003 was announced at the ProjectWorld Conference in Boston on Wednesday and is planned to be available in the second half of the year. The product will be available in a stand-alone desktop edition and as the Microsoft Office Enterprise Project Management Solution, which includes Project Professional, Project Web Access and Project Server, Microsoft said.

Pricing has not been announced.

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