Microsoft counts down to Office XP launch

Microsoft's next generation of office suite takes integration to the next level, but leaves tough privacy questions hanging.

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By  Jon Tullett Published  April 16, 2001

Microsoft has confirmed the May 31 launch date of its upcoming Office XP productivity suite. The software giant demonstrated many of the key features of the new suite in Dubai today, but dodged questions of user privacy and security.

The new suite boasts much better integration over Office 2000, offering the ability to link to features and context in other tools. For example, a name typed in Word links automatically (using right-click “Smart Tag” context menus) to the Outlook Address Book and Scheduler.

A single pop-up pane provides cross-application access to common tasks, including a multiple-item clipboard and a search engine that can access data in email, files on disk or the Internet.

In a move likely to be welcomed by a frazzled user community, the Office Assistant has been permanently retired.

Many advances in the areas of collaboration are present in Office XP; Outlook users can mail items “for review”, having Office then merge later submissions from co-workers back into a single document, highlighting each suggested change and allowing the author to accept or reject them.

Web integration is also improved; sections of web pages can be embedded in documents and have the contents automatically updated at each viewing. Much like Active Desktop, but for documents.

Mazen Shehadeh, product marketing manager, Microsoft GEM, also said that Arabic versions of the software would be available concurrently with the English editions. “In the past there has been a delta between the launch of the English versions and the Arabic,” he said. “We’re happy to say that the Arabic version will be available from the launch date.”

Counting reseller box packaging and OEM bundles, there will be seven different versions of the suite with various components included. OEMs will not have an option to bundle the web-page development tool FrontPage though; “they’ll have to buy the separate product and bundle it separately,” Shehadeh said.

Serious questions of privacy continue to dog the company, which has been struggling to polish its image. Mandatory registration makes its debut in Office XP, with users required to “activate” the product by contacting an Internet site or call centre. The product key is then coupled with a unique PC key derived from your hardware to yield an activation key. A changed hardware configuration will require reactivation. Shehadeh refused to comment on what elements of the hardware are tracked, but claimed Microsoft would not be able to decode specific data from the key anyway.

The effectiveness of this anti-piracy tool has yet to be proved. Microsoft will watch the reactivation requests to catch mass copiers, which Shehadeh says is the main target, but as there will be “pre-activated” keys available for corporate deployments, those will surely leak to the public domain in due course. In addition, rumours of “universal keys” for Windows XP and Office XP have been doing the rounds of the software underground since early betas of the products.

Of more concern is the company’s redistribution disclaimer during the activation procedure, which states that the user must specifically request Microsoft not to propagate any user information it obtains to third parties. How many users would bother to do so? The possibilities for abuse are disturbing. Shehadeh deflected questions to this effect by explaining that this particular activation process did not require any demographically useful details, but the disclaimer appears to cover future data as well.

Coupled with Microsoft’s widely disparaged Passport terms and conditions, privacy may be a serious concern for network managers rolling out Office XP. These terms state in part: “Microsoft does not claim ownership of the materials you provide to Microsoft (including feedback and suggestions) or post, upload, input or submit to any MSN Site/Service or its associated services for review by the general public (each a "Submission" and collectively "Submissions"). However, by posting, uploading, inputting, providing or submitting your Submission you are granting Microsoft, its affiliated companies and necessary sublicensees permission to use your Submission in connection with the operation of their Internet businesses including, without limitation, the rights to: copy, distribute, transmit, publicly display, publicly perform, reproduce, edit, translate and reformat your Submission; and to publish your name in connection with your Submission.”

In short: anything you write using Passport services is potentially under Microsoft's control. Shehadeh declined to comment on the impact of this on integrated services within Office XP. For instance, a clever feature in Outlook XP is the integration of Hotmail email facilities, allowing Hotmail folders and mail items to be retrieved from the Outlook interface. A useful feature, but requiring Passport services, and thus compliance with the Passport terms and conditions, Shehadeh confirmed, but would not comment immediately on the potential privacy issues. Users who make use of Hotmail accounts to separate personal emails from work-related ones may want to exercise caution as well; Office XP includes facilities for network managers to remotely control Office environments to coordinate software updates and the like.

The Office XP package is offering greatly improved integration and a slew of features for intranet-oriented developers, but there are a number of privacy questions as yet unanswered.

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