Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Microsoft keeps building better mousetrap

But will users continue to pay big bucks for that extra snap?

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TORONTO -- Build a better mouse trap, the saying goes, and the world will beat a pathway to your door.

But what happens if you already have a very good mouse trap and you tinker with it a little, will they still be beating that path?

That is the question facing Microsoft Corp. as it awaits the computer world's reaction to last week's launch of Microsoft Office 2003 -- the newest release of the software giant's suite of creativity and communications applications.

In launch events around the world last Tuesday -- a mega bash in New York with Bill Gates himself, an only slightly scaled-down one in Toronto, and similar happenings as far away as India -- Microsoft pulled out all the stops to ballyhoo what it hopes will be its newest cash cow.

An upcoming cross-country road show, including a Winnipeg stop, will further spread the hype.

Yes, Office has become THE standard for both business and home users when it comes to word processing (Word), spreadsheets (Excel), presentation and slideshows (PowerPoint) and e-mail (Outlook).

Over the years, Word has crushed its once powerful rival, WordPerfect, to the point where the latter has virtually disappeared from the desktops of computer users. Unable to match Bill Gates and his word processor, WordPerfect and its Utah-based originators sold the program years ago to Canada's Corel Corp.

The same thing happened with Lotus, the financial application that was, in its day, the standard in the accounting world. Sold to IBM, Lotus has evolved into Lotus Notes, an interesting and useful collaborative application that has failed to capture mass appeal, despite Big Blue's best efforts.

Outlook, Microsoft's e-mail program, in the same way, dominates its category and is the industry leader over less popular alternatives, such as Eudora, which grew from a giveaway shareware program to a serious commercial contender.

And what business meeting would be complete without a dazzling Power Point presentation, with its slick fades and glitzy animation capabilities. Even Adobe couldn't seriously compete.

Access, the database manager, is in a league of its own.

But the success of the Office suite has also become Microsoft's worst enemy. Once you have a product that so dominates, when you control up to 95 per cent of the market, where do you go from there?

It is the same dilemma Microsoft faces with its Windows operating system.

When you have convinced the world that you have built the best software there is, how do you then entice computer users to spend new dollars to buy an upgrade to a new, improved version.

Microsoft's answer is a $150-million US marketing campaign built around the theme "Great Moments at Work."

It is a catchy advertising phrase that you will see popping up everywhere. Gates spent some of that money on TV spots during the World Series. And the barrage will continue.

You will hear Microsoft higher-ups saying things like "I want to change people's lives for the better." An astounding statement, but it IS only a software program, after all.

People like Scott Jackson, the product manager for Office 2003 in Canada, will tell you that this is the most significant launch of a Microsoft product EVER. They will say things like Office 2003 changes from a productivity suite to a productivity SYSTEM.

To its credit, Microsoft did all the right things during the development of Office 2003.

Over the past year, more than 600,000 people worldwide where given beta copies of the program to try out. In Canada alone, there were 45,000 beta testers. I was one of them.

We loaded the beta CDs and used the programs in the Office suite, er, system. We saw the bugs and the crashes that weren't really crashes -- just messages saying that the program had encountered a problem and had to shut down.

And we were able to send instant reports to Microsoft HQ in Redmond, Wash., explaining just what was happening when the program felt it had to quit.

There are even examples of Microsoft software developers making house calls; actually going out to a user's home to check out a problem identified in one of these automatic bug reports.

The end result is a very good suite of software products.

Outlook, especially, is a better program in Office 2003 than it was in previous versions, with improved spam filters, a better way to organize incoming e-mail and the smarts to know when an Internet connection has been lost. (Earlier versions would just sit there in a state of frenzy, freezing up and forcing you to reboot before it would relinquish control of your screen.)

But are these improvements enough to make users run out and spend $300 or $400 or more for a better mousetrap? Bill Gates is hoping they will.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 26, 2003 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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