Microsoft shows off features of future version of Project

Microsoft showed off new features it is developing for a future version of its Project software.

Microsoft showed off some features of the next version of Project, to the delight of the crowd gathered at the Microsoft Office Project Conference in Seattle.

The audience applauded a new timeline view that will become available. Alice Steinglass, senior program manager for Microsoft Office Project, showed how users can cut and paste the timeline into other applications, such as a PowerPoint slide. Once pasted, users can alter individual components of the image, deleting sections and changing the font, for example.

That's one feature that furthers Microsoft's goal of making Project not only easier to use for project managers but usable by more people in an organization. "At the end of the day, the fundamental thesis here is that we are all project managers because we all manage work," said Steve Ballmer, Microsoft's CEO, addressing the audience. "Whether my personal project management system happens to look more like a formal project or a task list that I might keep in something like Excel or Outlook, we need to make sure that we give rich tool sets to people at all levels of the food chain to help them do work management."

A major user interface change to come within Project that Steinglass showed off is the icon ribbon at the top of the screen, similar to the one featured on many other Microsoft programs like Word. Users can click on different tabs at the top and the icons available in the ribbon change. With the click of an icon, users can do things like filter for incomplete tasks or group by resource name. These functions currently require several clicks in Project 2007.

Future versions of Project will give customers an easier way to customize fields. The current method is complicated and will eventually be replaced with a blank column that users can simply start filling in with any information they want. As soon as they do, a new blank column automatically appears. If a user inputs a dollar figure in the column, the rest of the column automatically configures for dollars.

Steinglass also showed off enhancements that will come to Web access to Projects. If a user makes changes to several time frames for completing tasks, the application won't automatically update the overall schedule so as not to slow down performance. When a user is done making changes, a calculate changes button makes the alterations, highlighting every item that has changed. Users can hit undo repeatedly to get rid of changes.

Microsoft doesn't even have a name for the next version of Project so there's no time frame for when these features will become available. Project 2007 began shipping earlier this year and some Project 2003 users say they're waiting for the first Service Pack release before they'll move to the latest version.

Microsoft executives expect that Web access will become important in the future. Practically every user of Project will take advantage of Web access, allowing partners and remote workers access to it from online, said Mike Angiulo, general manager of the Microsoft Project business unit. Ballmer wagered that in five years, about 50 percent of Project customers would use a fully hosted version, with the rest using an on-premise server.

Microsoft may also do some work enabling more access to Project from Windows Mobile devices. While there is a need for access to Project from mobile phones, users won't want the full version, Ballmer said. "What you want to do is say what aspects of the Project experience are people going to want to take on the phone," he said. For example, people may want to check on the status of a project and input information from their phones, he said.

Some existing functions already available let people use their phones to change tasks within Outlook and those changes will be replicated on the Project server, said Angiulo.

At the beginning of the week Microsoft said that in two or three weeks it will announce the ship date for Service Pack 1 for Project 2007. When pressed for more details, Angiulo said that it's on the same schedule as the release date for Office 2007. He added that the final code is being tested, an indication that release is imminent.

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