Office 11 Beta Lands in Testers Hands

Microsoft has high hopes for the next version of its desktop productivity suite, due mid-2003, which it is targeting at the broad business user.

Microsoft Corp. has sent the first beta of Office 11, its next-version desktop productivity suite, to a core group of several thousand technical testers for evaluation, bug checking and comment.

The Redmond, Wash., software company, which will announce the release of the beta on Tuesday, has high expectations for this Office upgrade, which it is targeting at the broad business user market rather than just at productivity workers as it has in the past.

It is also hoping that this wider target group and the business value the new features bring will drive sales of the software, which have begun to plateau over the past few quarters. In fact Jeff Raikes, Microsofts group vice president of productivity and business services, has previously said he hopes to double revenue from Office to $20 billion by 2010.

"I have a $20 billion dream for Office, but the product will be so much more than what we think of today. There will be new categories of application value from a client standpoint as well as around servers and XML services," he said at that time.

David Jaffe, the lead product manager for Microsoft Office, told eWEEK on Monday that this first beta will be followed by a second one early next year that will be made far more broadly available and public. The final product is expected to ship around the middle of 2003.

Microsoft has not made any decisions on pricing or what versions will be made available, he said, adding that these matters will be decided sometime late next spring. "The focus of Office 11 is on being connected: connected to your business processes, connecting people, and connecting and managing your information," he said.

This connectivity is enabled by XML, which has been weaved throughout the Office suite, allowing users to easily access information and repurpose data. Also, as XML is an industry standard, users can use systems other than Microsofts to run it as well as their legacy systems and applications, he said.

"Office 11 supports both native and arbitrary XML support across the suite, in Excel, Word and Access in particular. Users can now also create smart documents, which allow them access to context-sensitive information.

"Smart documents are essentially a Task Pane that appears inside the application and gives context-specific information based on where you are in the application and which can be pulled from other sources without having to search from it," Jaffe said.

Some developers and users have welcomed the smart document concept, which was first reported by eWEEK last month.

Joseph Rovine, a software engineer at eRoom Technology Inc., in Cambridge, Mass., said at the time that these innovations would be a good step forward for Office, but added that it was too early to tell if it would get any traction as an XML development platform.

These developments will mean Office code can read the schemas and figure out from them how to represent the structured data to the user. "This would give you something like a live Web site where up-to-date info is displayed, but without the Web browser," Rovine said.