With major new releases of Microsoft Corp.’s industry-leading Office and Windows software issued Nov. 30, school technology leaders face an important decision: upgrade their software now–or wait?

Upgrading now will allow schools to take advantage of the new benefits offered by the programs, including the promise of greater security and enhanced usability. But upgrading won’t be easy; each new release includes significant changes from earlier versions, and schools will have to retrain users and test key programs for compatibility. The early word from school leaders suggests that most are adopting a “wait-and-see” approach.

Office 2007 offers many of the same tools that previous versions have, but with one important difference: Every one of the tools is readily visible. In the past, even though several features existed within the applications themselves, many people did not know how to use them or where they were located. As a result, many useful tools were underutilized.

Microsoft solved this by inserting a one-inch ribbon above each application. In this ribbon, users will have almost every tool they need available at their fingertips, providing much simpler access, the company says. For example, when text is highlighted in a program, the ribbon will change to show users the things they can do with the text or within the application.

“Although different at first glance, we believe this task-based approach is more intuitive and easier to learn, especially for capitalizing on advanced features that many educators and students were not aware of,” says Ron Gode, director of Microsoft’s Education Specialist Team.

Other than the new streamlined look, Office 2007 includes many new features, such as a “Getting Started” screen in Access, with a variety of pre-built database solutions that can be used right away or as templates; live visual previews and pre-defined galleries of styles, table formats, and other content in Word; and a new “Insert” tab in Outlook, which provides a streamlined view of all content the user would like to insert or add to an eMail message.

It is not clear, though, how quickly school districts will adopt this new software suite. Many school systems, such as Wake County Public Schools in North Carolina, have exhibited a reluctance to upgrade to an entirely new suite of applications so soon after they are released.

According to a statement, Wake County Chief Technology Officer Beverly White said, “We are not planning to deploy 2007 Office during the remainder of this school year. In fact, it may well be the 2008-2009 school year before we see deployments of any scale. This will provide ample time for our training specialists to develop programs geared toward this new software. The Career and Technical Education department also requires time to acquire updated learning materials for [its] curriculum.”

Training also will be an issue for the Blue Valley Union School District in Blue Valley, Kansas.

“When you look at previous versions of Office, when we’ve moved staff from one version to another, they’ve always been similar enough so that we could get by with sending out some basic tutorials and documentation,” says Bob Moore, executive director of information technology services for Blue Valley. Staff members, Moore says, “could transfer their knowledge almost seamlessly from one version to another. But when you look at Office 2007, even for a very experienced computer user who’s been through a lot of different versions of software, you’re just struck by how completely different the look and feel is.”

There’s also the issue of compatibility to consider. Microsoft has decided to adopt an XML file format for Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. When using Office 2007, you can only save your files in the XML format, as opposed to previous formats such as “.doc.” But users of older versions of Office needn’t fear they’ll be unable to open files sent to them by an Office 2007 user, Microsoft says. When they first receive an Office 2007 document, users reportedly will be prompted to download a compatibility pack from Microsoft, which then will let them view the XML document in their older version of Office.

Gode says Microsoft intends to hold briefings, webinars, and other training to acclimate users to the changes in Office 2007. The company also has a number of “getting started” resources on the Office web site, including documents covering the changes in each application, trial sites that let users “test drive” the applications without installing them, and different tips and tricks.

Vista comes into view

As a new operating system, Windows Vista has to provide a new service that makes it a success in the marketplace. Microsoft is pinning its hopes on several such services. One of these is a new graphical interface, known as “Aero,” that borrows elements of Macintosh OS X. The concept of Aero is simple; if it’s called Windows, the folders themselves should act as virtual windows. With a graphics card that has at least 128 megabytes of memory, users are able to see each folder they have opened on the desktop become a transparent window of sorts, letting them make out the contents of any folder hiding out in the background. This gives the desktop a 3D-like feel. But running Aero within Windows Vista is not necessary to operate the system.

Another new and possibly beneficial aspect of Vista is speech recognition. The OS comes preloaded with an in-depth speech recognition program that lets the user essentially run the entire desktop simply by telling Vista to open and close programs. It also allows the user to dictate entire documents to be written in a word processor.

In addition, the software’s “ability to search and organize documents from a single search console is key,” says Gode. That was one of the reasons Microsoft completely reworked the search engine within its new operating system. Gone are the days when users had to type in a full word or phrase to successfully pull up their documents. Instead, the search function will narrow down what you’re looking for as you type in each letter.

The search function is aided even more by the addition of meta-tagging. When clicking once on a file within the Explorer window, a user is able to see the tags associated with the file–including author, date, comments, and any tags the user feels would make it easy to search for. Typing these tags, which also can be edited at any time, into the search bar will call up any and all files with the given tags.

“Our research shows that…students just dump a bunch of documents on their desktop or in the My Documents folder,” says Gode. “But we’re showing that you can do some simple things to organize or put meaning to your documents and data.”

Windows Vista comes with the latest version of Internet Explorer, version 7.0, included. In addition to updated navigation through “tabbed” browsing, IE 7 includes a new security function meant to protect users (and in a school setting, students) from accessing web sites that might contain spyware, malware, or phishing threats.

“The intuition is to click on something, even those [sites] you don’t know are bad,” says Gode. IE 7 attempts to prevent that by opening a screen notifying users that the web site they are about to enter is a suspected or known phishing site.

Parental Control is another new feature available as a part of Vista. With it, parents can limit the types of web sites their children go to, what games they play, and even how long they are allowed access to the computer. This ability also exists within a school setting. Though Vista is likely to improve security for consumers using the new operating system, security experts caution that Vista’s new features are not foolproof.

“Security is about layers, and you [still] need to take a layered approach to security,” Stuart Okin, a security partner at Accenture and former U.K. head of security for Microsoft, told Silicon.com.

Much as with Office 2007, many schools do not have a specific timetable for upgrading to Windows Vista. Many school systems upgrade in phases, sometimes depending on when they get new computers. “We will be upgrading over a couple of years,” says Blue Valley’s Moore. “We’ve already begun to take a close look at Vista, and we’ll continue over the next few months to take more looks at it. It looks very good from what we’ve seen and will have some definite advantages.”

Some school districts already have begun to test the capabilities of Windows Vista and Office 2007 with their students. The Fife School District in Fife, Wash., has installed RTM (Release to Manufacturer) copies of Windows Vista and beta versions of Office 2007 on approximately 30 desktops and five tablet PCs for its ninth-grade class called Digitools. The semester-long class teaches handwriting recognition, voice recognition, and keyboarding, all of which take advantage of Vista’s new speech-recognition and tablet functions.

The district already has made plans to upgrade all of the 1,100 computers in its schools to Vista and Office 2007, which will take place over the summer in 2007. Fife’s director of instructional technology, Cindy Agnew, anticipates the upgrading will take about three weeks. “We will definitely be having an orientation in each building, as well as training the administrators and building [technicians],” she says. “We plan on having ongoing support through September and October.”