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Microsoft goes limited with Office 12 beta

New Office or same old suite?

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After months of teasing previews, Microsoft has finally given the next version of its desktop productivity suite its first, if limited, outing.

Microsoft has released a beta of Office 12, called a technical beta, to 10,000 pre-screened developers working at partner companies and customers. A general beta is due next spring with Office 12 scheduled for the "second half" of 2006.

Microsoft resorted to its characteristic bombast in announcing the beta, describing Office 12 as "redefining the Office experience" and "the most significant release" of Office in more than 10 years.

For once, Microsoft is remotely close to the truth - at least on its latter claim. Recent versions of Office - Office 2000, Office XP and Office 2003 - have lacked the features required to persuade 30 per cent of the Office user base to move off of the eight-year-old Office 97. Customers have eschewed tighter integration and splashy features, believing Office 97 to be "good enough." Just 15 per cent of PCs are running Office 2003.

Early indications are Office 12 will indeed offer something new. Being timed for the Windows Vista operating system, Office 12 will share Vista's WinFX XML mark-up interface. The Office 12 file formats are also in XML, but not the OpenDocument Format (ODF) supported by IBM, Sun and others.

Office 12 will feature improved business intelligence (BI). Excel spreadsheets will be able to access corporate data held in SQL Server while a server-based set of Excel Services will allow customers to secure and share data.

One of the most touted, and eagerly welcomed, advances is Microsoft's decision to make existing features in Office easier to access. Office 12 uses icons instead of drop-down menus to expose capabilities like drawing charts in Excel or turning bullet points into PowerPoint graphics.

Microsoft has also promised new Office bundles, with a "premium" edition of Office due. It is not year clear what features the premium edition will carry or what the price will be. The current "high-end" edition of Office is Office Professional Edition, priced $380 per copy.

Elsewhere, Office 12 is a bit ho hum. Microsoft is borrowing Apple Computers' "widgets" for non-browser-based information and internet services, introduced with OS X Tiger this year. Microsoft's offering is rather inimaginatively called "gadgets", with developers encouraged to build their own gadgets. Under the category of "why didn't they do that sooner?" Microsoft is adding the ability to save Office files as PDFs. ®

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