The cost of it all

In my day job as an IT consultant, I get to deal with many small businesses whose computer networks have grown up organically over the past few years. They’ve typically got between ten and 50 PCs and a couple of servers, and they’re looking to try and streamline their IT administration. Some of their users will be working with high-end, job-related applications like AutoCAD, Quark and so on, while some others will be using bespoke or tailored line-of-business applications, but the majority of the users will spend an awful lot of time using standard office applications like Word, Excel and Outlook.

The cost of it all

Having purchased the PCs in ones and twos over several years, it’s likely the company took the easy option and bought each PC with some version of Office pre-installed, which will result in different users having different versions of Office (2000, XP, 2003, even 97) and probably even different editions (Basic, Standard, Small Business, Professional), as the person doing the ordering couldn’t remember what they’d ordered last time or had decided that the particular person they were ordering for didn’t need one application or other and so they’d save money by ordering a lower edition.

Now management has decided they want to consolidate and get everyone at least onto the same version of the suite, as they’re starting to notice some compatibility problems. Microsoft tells us that the Office file formats are compatible, as they haven’t changed since Office 97, which is mainly true except for Access, which got a new file format with every version from 95 through 2003. However, there are still compatibility problems between versions, because each new version of Office added various new features to various different applications. Sometimes, it was just that more subtle colours were available, but each such feature brings its own problems whenever you open a document created or edited with a later version of an application – the earlier version of the application has to decide what it’s going to do with a feature it was never designed to display. The upshot is that while you can open and view a Word 2003 document in Word 2002, 2000 or 97, it may look or even print differently. There are 50 different compatibility settings in Word 2003 and 60 in Word 12 Beta 1.

Sometimes, you can even run into compatibility problems between different versions of different applications installed on the same machine. If the company’s server is Windows Small Business Server 2003, it comes with licences for everyone to use Outlook 2003, but if you have Office XP on your PC and install Outlook 2003, Outlook won’t talk to the rest of Office, while Word, Excel and the rest can’t talk to Outlook. All the integration for Mail Merge, Send to Email Recipient and so on falls apart too. So what do you do if you have half your workstations running Office XP and half running 2003 but everyone has Outlook 2003, only a quarter of your people actually create or edit PowerPoint presentations and no-one uses Access at all?

Well, you could buy boxed product upgrades for Word and Excel for those machines stuck with Office XP – that would bring those machines up to a minimum level, but would it be worth it? There are two factors to consider here. One is that ‘Office 12’, which will be titled ‘Office 2007’, will be out by the end of 2006 and it represents a big leap forward in terms of productivity, features and ease of use, and the other is that machines purchased with Office XP pre-installed are probably three years old already and you may be replacing them sometime soon for hardware reasons. When you bought Office with that PC you got an OEM (original equipment manufacturer) licence for Office, which is tied to that machine. That licence to use Office dies with that machine, so if you buy an upgrade of Office for that machine the upgrade is useless once the machine is scrapped. You can’t buy a new PC, without Office, and install the Office upgrade onto that. An upgrade is precisely what it says, an upgrade to an original licence, and that original licence is tied to one PC you’ve just scrapped.

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