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Microsoft has at last named a date - of sorts - for the next release of Office. Known generally as Office 12, the updated version of Microsoft's suite is coming next year, Bill Gates says.

Until now Microsoft has kept mum on Office 12, referring only to availability during the vague "Longhorn wave" of products. Gates, Microsoft's chief software architect, did not provide an exact shipment date, but speculation has shipping pinned a little more precisely for July 2006.

Office 12 will become the first new version of Office to be released in three years.

Speaking yesterday in Las Vegas, as Microsoft released Window Mobile 5.0, Gates hinted that Office 12 would see improvements in workflow, rights management advanced scheduling, sharing and business intelligence.

"Those are areas where Office has gotten richer and will in the next big release that's coming next year," he said.

No matter what Microsoft throws into Office 12, the company faces an up-hill task persuading users happy with older versions of Office to upgrade. Office 97 accounts for 30 per cent of the customer base, according to analysts. Customers are happy that Office 97 provides them with the level of functionality need to simply get their job done, without the need for advanced collaboration capabilities so beloved by Gates and found in later versions of Office. ®

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