Microsoft reveals more details on 'Office 12'

Bill Gates will detail more features of Office 12 at the start of Microsoft's CEO Summit later today.

Microsoft is beginning to release more details of the next generation of its productivity software, code-named Office 12, emphasizing tools for greater collaboration, information discovery and content management.

Although the software isn't due out until the second half of 2006, chief software architect Bill Gates highlighted some of its features during an opening address at the company's CEO Summit on Microsoft's Redmond, Washington, on Wednesday.

Gates spoke on "the new world of work," describing how workplaces have moved from manufacturing to services-based organizations, with demands for greater transparency and accountability in business processes.

An interview with Microsoft executive Chris Capossela, posted to the company's Web site, gives more nuts and bolts details of the Office 12 plans, however.

The new version of Office will focus on areas such as collaboration, business intelligence, enterprise content lifecycle, and reducing IT complexity, according to Capossela, who is the company's vice president of the Information Worker Product Management Group.

In the area of collaboration, for example, the company is trying to make it easier to set up and use shared workspaces in Microsoft Office SharePoint Portal Server, allowing users to exchange information across corporate boundaries, Capossela said. Office 12 will also incorporate peer-to-peer capabilities using technologies the company gained from its acquisition of collaboration software maker Groove Networks Inc., he said.

Out-of-the-box secure enterprise instant messaging (IM) "could be one area" that Microsoft is looking, according to Wolfgang Ebermann, general manager of Microsoft's Information Worker group in Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA). The company has already been investing in this area, Ebermann said, pointing to Microsoft's Live Communications Server 2005 enterprise instant messaging and presence product.

"And we see some further IM investments to come in the roadmap," Ebermann added.

Office 12 will focus on the ability to see information more clearly through data visualization, such as new features in Excel that will allow users to create real time dashboards and scorecards from data within spreadsheets, Capossela said. Users will then be able to share that information through a portal site, or workspace, offering greater team collaboration, he added.

The software will give users the ability to create more dynamic documents with new tools such as those planned for PowerPoint which will apply sophisticated formatting and layout to slides, Capossela said.

IT complexity will be addressed with features that centrally define expiration and archival policies for content, and tools to help meet regulatory compliance and reporting standards, according to Capossela.

In addition to adding new bells and whistles to the productivity suite, the software maker has been pushing Office as a development platform. One way it is doing this is through deeper incorporation of XML (Extensible Markup Language), which will make it easier for developers to create software that interoperates with back-end systems. This XML support will also boost the creation of Microsoft Office InfoPath forms, which can be used to extract and analyze data without leaving the Office interface, Capossela said.

"Our inspiration is to use the well known interface of Office as the front end for information workers to access data in the organization more effectively," Ebermann said.

Microsoft's announcement last month that it plans to deliver a joint product with SAP AG that links Office with SAP's enterprise resource planning (ERP) software is an example of this.

Ebermann was reluctant to divulge any further details of the company's Office plans, saying only that upcoming features will be geared toward automating business processes and increasing worker productivity.

Microsoft will begin beta testing of Office 12 in the third quarter of this year, allowing some users to get a closer look at the new technologies. But for now, interested parties may have to settle for the broader view laid out by Gates.

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Scarlet Pruitt

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