With earlier versions of Office, users had some handy though fairly limited tools for sharing documents. Realizing that few important documents are produced by a single person these days, Microsoft has significantly beefed up its collaboration tools, many of which are at the heart of Office’s transformation from a suite to a system that goes beyond just client-side tools to a network of clients and companion servers.
Portal SetupWhile there is nothing extra to install on clients for collaboration in Office 2003, you’ll need to set up one of Microsoft’s two current intranet portal offerings, Microsoft Windows SharePoint Services (free with Windows Server 2003) or the full-fledged Microsoft SharePoint Portal Server 2003 ($3,999 per server plus $71 per user).
Both SharePoint products allow users to create browser-accessible workspaces around one or more documents. Each workspace can contain a set of members with varying rights to files, group calendars, and to-do lists, and Web links to related materials.
Shared WorkspacesFortunately, Office 2003 users don’t need to run to their browsers every time they need to work on documents stored within a workspace. Word, Excel, and PowerPoint now contain a Shared Workspace task pane (on the right side of the screen by default). From here you can create new workspaces or jump to a library of shared documents (and links) for your team and then work together very intuitively in the same interface. A convenient toolbar running across the top of this pane provides access to tasks, members, and shared documents and links.
Inviting users to a shared work session can be done through e-mail or built-in support for instant messaging via Microsoft Office Live Communications Server 2003. We like that you can see who is online, using built-in presence indicators. With IM, users can contribute to live discussions about shared documents. And a whiteboard feature lets users share text and drawings in real time.
SharePoint at WorkAfter a user opens a document, SharePoint keeps track of the version control, locking it for edits from other users, who can still read the document. Another option lets users get automatic document updates when changes are made.
A fantastic new feature lets members view and even edit documents together in real time, as if in a virtual meeting, as long as their systems are properly configured. (The mouse pointer disappears from your screen as different participants make changes.) Once the changes are saved, the document on the main SharePoint server is updated.
Overall, the Shared Workspace console is very intuitive, letting you work with others from within the familiar interface of applications like Word and Excel. The Shared Workspace task pane expedites finding collaborative features quickly, leaving the content pane available for standard viewing and editing.