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.
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Bill Coan, president of Coan and Co. Inc., in Hortonville, Wis., which develops custom templates and add-ins for corporate customers, also gave the programmable task pane the thumbs up as users will now always have available to them the most urgently needed options and guidance.
While Microsoft will not be supplying ready-made “smart documents,” it will be providing a developer kit that will make programming easy, allowing corporations and enterprises to create their own internal smart documents that could be used across the company, Jaffe said.
When asked about the security of these documents, Jaffe said they could be digitally signed, so users would know that they came from a trusted source. “The reality is that this is no different from how people work today, when they open up an e-mail or access a Web site or use smart tags to access information. Nobodys going to be any more exposed,” he said.
Office 11 also allows much more integrated collaboration between people and has been designed to make the capturing of corporate knowledge and leveraging of the existing infrastructure and staff resources far more seamless and efficient.
“Office 11 is far more tightly integrated with SharePoint Team Services Version 2.0, which introduces the concept of document workplaces,” Jaffe said. “What this does is create a task pane that is essentially a view into an STS site. Users can then make their documents become a live attachment, which creates an STS site specifically for collaboration on the document or project.
“As the mail is sent out, recipients can check the STS site via the task pane to see if there is a later version of the document than the one they have. So this gives them access to the most up-to-date information and copies of the work/reports,” he said.
User presence is also now recognized so the task pane will show if co-workers or contributors are online, and they can chat with them from within the task pane.
“For many users, this will be completely transparent and they will not even be aware that an STS site has been created on the back end. In line with this, we have also improved how meetings take place through meeting workspaces,” Jaffe said.
Microsoft also made some “radical” changes in Outlook around the way connected users read, store and manage the personal information they store.
A new reading pane has also been built into Outlook that allows users to read more of their e-mail in preview than ever before without taking up more real estate. It is also better at storing and searching e-mail. Users can now sort strings of e-mail around the same subject by conversation thread, as well as use the search across multiple folders and save those search results into a single folder.
Microsoft has also introduced quick flags, where users can apply five different-colored flags to their various e-mail messages to indicate how these need to be followed up, which could then be searched for by color.
Improvements have also been made around how mail is managed in terms of connecting with Exchange. “We now have something called local cache mode, which is far more intelligent about how it uses the network bandwidth. So not only can it recognize the type of connection you are on, but its smart about how it downloads information,” Jaffe said.
With Outlook 11, information can be stored locally, and when the user connects back to the server it automatically syncs back up. If the connection is lost, Outlook will not go down and the user can continue working uninterrupted, since it is smart enough to recognize when it is online or offline.
In addition, it can now recognize the type of Internet connection a user has and download information differently depending on the connection. So, if a user has a slow dial-up connection, just the headers of the e-mail will be downloaded first. Clicking on the e-mail will then cause the body of the message to download.
Microsoft has also now put smart tags into PowerPoint and Access. A new research and reference task pane is also included for the first time that allows users to access information on Encarta and do language translation out of the box. It will also allow users to access external Web services or content, the specifics of which will be announced later in the year, Jaffe said.
Asked if this was doing the same thing that Microsoft had tried with smart tags in Windows XP, which it was forced to drop from the product, Jaffe said people did not have problems with smart tags in Office XP as it made sense in the context of a document and pulling information into that document.
“Anyone can build their own smart tag solution, and here the reality is smart tags will work a lot like they did in Office XP and well probably have third parties that we make available to use right inside research and reference. Organizations can also do this internally,” he said.
Microsoft will also be releasing a software developer kit that allows users to link to their own research and reference sites from within the Office document, he added.