A month or so ago, Microsoft released Beta 2 of Office System 2007; we've now had the chance to take a look at it.

This release is almost feature complete and early indications are that it is very stable. Microsoft has already announced a small number of companies who are looking for “go live” licences, allowing them to deploy Office System 2007 to their staff.

This is good news and suggests that the delays that were announced a few months ago are not as serious as first thought. In fact, Microsoft has announced that it expects the engineering teams, subject to any major flaw in Beta 2, to have finished their work by October 2006.

While many of the core products are now available, there are some that have not been included in this beta release. There are also some peripheral products that are outside of the control of the Office team, such as Rights Management, that are only just entering their own beta cycle.

On top of this, Microsoft needs to do a lot of work to clarify why there are so many variants of Office System 2007 and how everything will be licensed. At present, this is extremely unclear and even people inside Microsoft are having a problem explaining everything.

Over the next few months we will be digging down into the various products that make up Office System 2007. We will look at the User Interface, how it can be deployed, the developer model and what makes up the key usage scenarios that Microsoft talks about. In this first article we will take a look at the different versions, the licensing and what this means for corporate IT departments.

What is Office System 2007?
Office System 2007 is the new name for Microsoft Office. If now consists of more than just a set of product arranged into some handy bundles for corporate customers. It is now seen as a complete environment for the Information Worker (IW) and is going to take support and development into the same category as those who look after core corporate server systems.

Office System 2007 consists of seven different bundles, 15 individual products, five servers, three web access solutions, three services and two different CALs (Client Access Licenses). Some of these are brand new products, some have been renamed and others are just updates to existing tools. The new and much talked about User Interface ribbon is only in the core products so there is no consistent look and feel across the whole range. (see table for the full list of products)

Not all of the products are going to be available as shrink wrapped software. Two bundles, two individual products, all the Web Access products, both the CALs, all five servers and one of the services will only be available to customers who have bulk licensing deals. On top of this there already exists a developer suite known as Visual Studio Tools for Office (VSTO) which is available as a standalone development tool.

It would be easy to say that most of this complexity will pass corporate IT buyers by, but it won’t. It’s not just the Enterprise IT departments that will have problems. For those in the SME market, this marvel of modern licensing is likely to cause much head-scratching and leave people purchasing products that they don’t want, just to get what they need.

How is Office System 2007 being packaged?
Office Enterprise 2007 is one of the new product bundles and will only be available to bulk purchase customers. It will require the new Enterprise CAL and this allows the user to access not just the Office System 2007 servers but also use products such as Windows Rights Management Services and Office Live Communications Server.

Anomalies with Office Enterprise 2007 are the inclusion of Publisher and the omission of both Project and Office SharePoint Designer. Publisher is included, according to Microsoft, because it has historically been part of the top end Office Suite although Microsoft accepts that few corporate IT departments would actually deploy it to the desktop.

Microsoft has been very keen to position Project as an ideal collaboration tool. One of the big problems is managing teams, especially when they are spread over multiple sites and Project is ideally suited to this task. It omission, therefore, makes little sense.

Office SharePoint Designer is a new tool for 2007. It is one of two tools replacing FrontPage and its main focus is to help users design and manage SharePoint sites. SharePoint Server 2007 has been designed to underpin the whole of Office 2007 so omitting the key tool for users to create, edit and manage their sites from the Enterprise bundle seems a little short sighted.

Not everyone in the organisation will need all the facilities of Office Enterprise. Therefore Microsoft has introduced Office Professional Plus 2007. Like the Enterprise bundle, it will only be available to bulk license customers but it won’t require the new Enterprise CAL.

Microsoft recently accepted that most large organisations will be deploying a mix of Enterprise and Professional Plus. This is not ideal but Microsoft has announced some new packaging tools that should make this simpler.

Medium-sized businesses will find themselves trying to decide on Enterprise, Professional Plus and Professional. Much will depending on the features that their users will need access to.

Small businesses will have the choice of Professional or Small Business unless they have a bulk purchase agreement.

Office System 2007 Servers
Office has been moving beyond the desktop products for some time now. SharePoint Portal Server and Content Management Server have now been brought together into a single product, SharePoint Server 2007. This is the core repository and collaboration home for Office System 2007.

Office Live Communications Server will be refreshed in 2007 and will be given a new name. Microsoft is being coy on what that will be but has stressed that it will remain the key server for real-time communications. When you look at SharePoint Server, Groove Server and Live Communications Server it appears that there is a substantial amount of overlap. Just how that will be resolved has yet to be clarified.

Project Server was introduced with Office 2003 and will be refreshed for 2007 as well as being joined by Office Project Portfolio Server 2007 about which little is really known.

There are two other new server products, Office Forms Server and Office Groove Server. The latter is particularly interesting as it is designed to act as a real-time collaboration tool. This means that it has overlap with both SharePoint Server and Live Communications Server. How this will all shakeout is, as yet unknown.

Client Access Licences
One area that is very confusing, especially for what is not being said as much as for what is being said is that of the CALs. These are required to ensure that the user is licensed for access to servers. The new Enterprise CAL extends the reach of the standard Office CAL to areas such as enterprise search tools and rights management.

However, neither of these tools provides access rights to SQL Server. This needs to be clarified urgently as SQL Server is the key repository for everything Microsoft does. It underpins both Project Server and SharePoint Server. For users to access data stored in both products they will also need to access SQL Server. At present, there are conflicting statements from products managers inside Microsoft. Some believe that when accessing the repository through the servers, you will have access without a separate CAL. Others are not so sure. In a few weeks time at Tech-Ed USA, Microsoft will be showing a lot more around Office System 2007 and should be able to provide definitive answers to this.

Office System 2007 is not just a collection of new products with some fiendishly complicated packaging and licensing. It is a clear attempt by Microsoft to position its products at the core of the enterprise by extending their reach and capability. While Microsoft might be under pressure from other vendors in the Office space it is clearly fighting back and the new servers are just the start.