When Microsoft Corp. releases its next Office productivity suite in the second half of next year, it will unleash the most dramatic Office upgrade IT managers have seen since Office 95.
Code-named Office 12, the update doesnt just signify a departure from Office 2003 but also a radical change in the user interface and in the look that Microsoft has consistently offered for years to users of its Windows-based applications.
Although the revamp will help Microsoft set Office apart from open-source competitors such as the OpenOffice.org Projects OpenOffice.org 2.0, the dramatic changes in the look and feel of the productivity suite run the risk of alienating users who are accustomed to the classic Microsoft Office interface.
Office continues to dominate on corporate desktops, but lower-priced and open-source alternatives are beginning to gain ground.
With competitors releasing lower-cost alternatives that mimic Office and use its native file formats, Microsoft has been working to differentiate Office 12 with enhancements that are intended to increase user productivity, ease collaboration and improve business document management.
One of the biggest changes users will see in Office 12 is the advent of the "ribbon." The new interface does away with drop-down menus and tool bars, replacing them with a ribbon of frequently used commands. The ribbon offers different command options depending on the task a user is performing.
Another key change is the "galleries" feature, which will give users a visual representation of the types of formatting they can make in a document. For example, a user who wants to change the margins in a document could go to a gallery for an image of what such a change would look like, rather than making several changes to items in a dialog box.
A radical new interface isnt the only thing Microsoft has been working on. At Microsofts Professional Developers Conference, held in Lost Angeles last month, Microsoft demonstrated to developers the potential of the WWF (Windows Workflow Foundation), although thats still over the horizon.
And, earlier this month, the software company announced that Office 12 will support Adobe Systems Inc.s PDF, allowing users to convert Office documents to PDF files.
What remains to be seen is whether a command ribbon, forthcoming WWF support and PDF support will be enough to woo IT managers, many of whom are beginning to demand an open format from their office productivity suites.