Next-Generation Office Shows Promise

Review: Office 11 Beta 1 offers new XML and Internet collaboration features.

With open-source offerings threatening to encroach on its imperious market position, Microsoft Corp. is under pressure to demonstrate that its products deliver superior value, despite any cost disadvantages. Although its tough to compete with free, Microsoft has made a solid early case for itself with the first beta of Office 11, its next-generation office productivity suite.

Office 11 promises to be the most Internet-connected Office release to date, and the bulk of the new and freshened functionality depends on Microsofts SharePoint Team Services. SharePoint allows for some impressive collaborative features in Office but requires an all-Microsoft back end of .Net Server 2003, Internet Information Services and SQL Server to operate.

Office 11 wont ship for another year, so its too early to say who will benefit from an upgrade. The suites interface enhancements are valuable, but eWeek Labs tests of the beta provide limited reasons for upgrading.

Unless sites running Office XP expect to make use of Office 11s new XML and Internet collaboration features, they can probably wait for a future upgrade—particularly if theyre running Windows 9x (which Office 11 will not support). Companies running Office 2000, however, may find that enough usability gains have accrued since that release to undertake an upgrade to Office 11.

As with Office XP, the improvements in Office 11 principally consist of interface refinements and extensions rather than new features. For example, the task pane, introduced in Office XP as a way to make program functions more "discoverable," accepts in Office 11 a fuller role; it appears throughout the suite to place tools, such as the thesaurus, closer at hand, whether one is working in Word, Excel or PowerPoint.

Outlook has a more configurable layout in Office 11, with changes to the preview pane that make reading e-mail more comfortable. Outlook also can use a local copy of a users Exchange mailbox to speed and smooth access to groupware data.

We were disappointed, however, to find little new in Outlook for combatting spam, which stands out as one of the greatest productivity challenges for networked users today.

Beyond these interface refinements, the most noticeable updates in Office 11 involve the expanded role of XML across the suite and Microsofts continued focus on building Internet-backed functionality into Office.

Words default file format is unchanged, but the application now lets users save documents as a single XML file, without any formatting loss that we could discern. Users may also apply their own XML schemas to documents created or modified in Word. Microsoft introduced XML support in the Office XP versions of Excel and Access and has built on this support in Office 11.

Technical Analyst Jason Brooks can be reached at