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Microsoft's online Office variant preps for business

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You'll get a taste of what a web-based version of Microsoft's Office for Firefox, Safari, the iPhone and Internet Explorer can do later this year.

Microsoft confirmed Wednesday that Office Web applications - announced last October - will be ready for testing along with the next edition of its Office suite, Office 2010, in the third-quarter. Release to manufacturing for Office 2010 is due in the first half of next year.

It'll be the first time you get a hands-on experience of the eagerly anticipated suite and potential competitor to the desktop version of Office and Google Docs.

Details have been sketchy on Office Web applications, but Microsoft has said in the past you'll need its Silverlight browser-based media player to go beyond basic editing of one document at a time. Silverlight will provide sharp images, integration with Office Live Workspace to upload multiple files, and also the ability to share and edit documents simultaneously in real time. Also, there may or may not be ads in Office Web applications.

Office Web applications are scheduled to be available for Firefox and Safari in addition to Internet Explorer, and will be able to run on Apple's iPhone.

The suite promises to be the most compelling aspect of the next version of the Office family that, outside Microsoft and its immediate circle of fans, is unlikely to excite interest.

Microsoft's biggest problem when it comes to shipping new versions of Office is getting the existing install base to upgrade. There has been massive inertia since Office 97, with Office 2000 and Office XP seeing slow uptake. Office 2007 seemed to change this.

The biggest challenge for Microsoft is that Office does what's required - word processing, spreadsheets and presentations - and no more.

The biggest innovation in recent years was the introduction of the ribbon interface with Office 2007, which exposed features previously hidden behind complicated drop-down menus.

Judging by Microsoft's comments on Wednesday it doesn't look like Office 2010 as a whole will offer much new, and it seems Microsoft will again be forced to draw on standard claims that its latest version of Office is a game changer that'll make you more productive. Office 2010 will "redefine how people work", Microsoft said.

On Exchange 2010, Microsoft talked up personal e-mail archives to meet compliance and regulatory needs, unified messaging and the ability to remove yourself from irrelevant e-mail threads.

Microsoft also called the Office 2010 family an important milestone in the company's commitment to interoperability principles.

Microsoft said it's achieved this by implementing new document format standards and also by publishing full implementation notes and a "great deal" of technical documentation through the Open Specification Promise for third parties.

Translated, those new standards are OOXML - the Microsoft-generated alternative to ODF, and that found its way in to the international standards process.

Microsoft also pointed to its publication of 20,000 pages of documentation covering protocols and formats used in Office, Exchange and SharePoint Server as further proof if its good intentions. ®

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