The most likely scenarios for Office 12 include enterprise content life cycle; knowledge directory and insight; unified communications, which would bring instant messaging, telephony and other communications together; and integrating them all into business process automation, enterprise project automation, deployment and small business.
"These are the kinds of things we are testing and asking our partners if these are what they want and need. This is not the final list, but this could well be much of what the final list looks like," Chris Capossela, corporate vice president of the Information Worker division at Microsoft Corp., told attendees at Microsofts Worldwide Partner Conference here.
Sketching some of the broad trends that Office 12 will address, Capossela said there is a real need for users to cross corporate boundaries more easily, so Office 12 will address this by allowing self-hosted, shared sites outside the corporate intranet.
There are also huge pressures around having an "always-on and always-connected" scenario, which will be addressed in Office 12 by giving people access to the information they need to make core decisions. These innovations will come through things such as its upcoming Scorecard Manager product, known as Maestro.
"Search, a frustrating experience today, also will be taken to a new level in Office 12, as will the complex issues of compliance and meeting government regulations," Capossela said. "This is the one where people will be most surprised at the amount of work we have done."
Microsoft is committed to making it far easier for users to manage all of this digital content, allowing users to centrally set things such as expiration rules and archival policies on core document types. Document approval also will be much simpler than it is today, he said.
"This is a big area of opportunity for all of us. While areas like collaboration are super-important, enterprise content management and business process integration are the biggest ones, and our shared goal is to help people get better results faster," Capossela said.
He also confirmed the timeline for the release of Office 12, with the first beta available to a small group of several thousand this fall, followed by a far larger second beta, which will be made available to a million or so users next spring. The final product will ship in the second half of 2006, he said.
"If I look into a crystal ball, these are a few things that Office 12 will bring, although we are looking at nomenclature changes. We also still got a lot of work to do to talk about packaging and pricing," he said.
Customers and developers can expect Microsoft to talk far more about, and even demonstrate, Office 12 at its Professional Developer Conference in September, where some 30 Office sessions are currently planned.
There also will be a second Office Developer Conference in Redmond, Wash., next spring as well as the companys first-ever SharePoint conference around that time.
Turning to the issue of partner opportunities, Capossela said one of the largest of these involves instant messaging, with research showing that some 20 percent of Office users use IM today. That figure was expected to rise to 80 percent by 2008.
And Microsofts technologies are gaining the upper hand on the collaboration front, Capossela said, adding that portals are also a key area for the company right now, "giving us a very hot story to tell. Throw the Groove assets into the mix, and our solution is even more compelling," Capossela said.
In an effort to show how committed Microsoft is to helping its partners, Capossela pointed to the 3,000-odd Information Worker partner-led deals that have closed so far this year, indicating how Microsoft is bringing customers into the fold. "We are working on improving this even further," he said.
The ability to work with other partners and sell solutions to them is one of the strengths Microsoft brings to the table, he said, before pointing to the many market opportunities that exist behind Office.
In an interesting aside, Capossela noted that many of Microsofts partners are themselves not running Office 2003 today. "It is hard to build a solution on something that you are not using yourself," he quipped.
Partners need to adopt Office 2003 internally, select and develop a solution offering, achieve a Microsoft Partner Program Information Worker Solutions Competency, feature their offerings in the Office Solutions Directory and publish their partner solutions plans, he said.
"So, where are people looking for solutions? Messaging and collaboration, portals and enterprise content management, enterprise project management, Office as a smart client, and deployment. We are spending most of our marketing dollars on these five areas," he said.
Microsofts own research has shown that integrating Office with multiple lines of business holds the biggest partner opportunity and brings a higher margin per solution for partners than connecting Office to a single line of business.