Microsoft Office 2007 will arrive on January 30 along with Windows Vista. My sense is that it will have a much different effect at large companies than in small businesses.

Everyone’s initial impression will be disorientation, since menus and buttons are radically rearranged. Those feelings will pass and small businesses and home users will likely get back to work more or less the way they were working before. In the end Word can still be a word processor that saves files in folders.

There is a huge infrastructure built into the Office programs to support collaboration – document management and version control, discussions, group calendars, and much more. It’s far more elaborate than the confusing “track changes” system in Word 2003. Menus in the Office programs will include easy access to “shared workspaces” that become the initial point of entry into each project, rather than searching through a more or less organized system of file folders. It’s difficult to convey how drastically this can change the experience of using these programs – it’s a completely different way to approach your desk.

There are several different components to the collaborative features and project portals. The Sharepoint Server will be front and center, but there are less familiar names as well – Forms Server, Groove Server, Project Portfolio Server.

Notice anything about all those names? The word “Server” stands out. It will require dedicated back-end servers to bring these new Office capabilities to life. There’s a reason the Microsoft web page refers to the “Microsoft Office 2007 System” – the servers are an integral part of the package, completely transforming the experience of using an Office program.

Therein lies the rub for small businesses. Each of those back-end servers represents complex technology; each one requires a depth of knowledge and hands-on expertise. Small businesses may not be able to deploy that back end: the hardware and software is expensive; it may be difficult or impossible to run without a full-time IT person onsite; the learning curve for users will be fierce and even harder in a small group that may not have enthusiastic early adopters to create momentum.

So large companies may find that Office 2007 has features that completely change their work flow and open up incredible tools for their users to work on projects together. I’m worried that small businesses will be shut out, left wondering if there’s anything to reward them for the annoyance of learning new buttons.

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