Customers who haven't installed SP3 by that time will see their computers automatically download the new service pack beginning February 27, though Microsoft says the process is "gradual" and distribution won't happen all at once.
The company made this announcement via its Microsoft Update product team's blog over the weekend. The forewarning keeps with an announcement Microsoft made when it released Office 2007 SP1 in December that it would give clear release guidance on Office service packs so as to prepare individuals and organizations for their updates.
Office 2003 SP3 contains a number of security updates across the Office product line. Significantly, it gives users greater control over which macros can run in Excel, patches known security holes, and gives IT admins new tools to protect against social engineering attacks. There are also patches to make Office 2003 work better with Windows Vista and other new Microsoft products, as well as a number of smaller patches.
Office 2003 SP3 was first released to the Web last September, so the service pack, guidance and details are all available at Microsoft.com now. The five month lag between release and automatic update has given Microsoft time to tweak it, the Microsoft update team said in its blog.
One of the security improvements in Office 2003 SP3 gave error messages to users trying to open old documents, but Microsoft later reversed itself, providing users with ways to get around the restrictions. The company has also issued revised guidance on default file formats. "We apologize that this hasn't been as well documented or as easy as you need it to be," Microsoft security engineer David Leblanc wrote at the time.
Microsoft might just now be releasing the update to Office 2003, but much of the company is focused on the next generation, Office 2007, which makes significant changes to the software's user interface. Microsoft's been labeling Office 2007 as nothing less than blockbuster.
"Customer acceptance of the Office product itself has been extremely good. It's right at the top end of our expectations," Colleen Healy, Microsoft's general manager for investor relations, said on the company's quarterly earnings investor call last week. "From consumer to small business to large businesses, the underlying office business and the office product has been a real success since launch." The next version of Office is due in 2009, according to Microsoft documents.