- Microsoft this week said the first beta-test version of the promised successor to Office 2000 has been released to a limited number of users.
Code named Office 10, the upcoming release of the company's widely used office applications includes enhanced Web collaboration features and user interface changes, such as support for speech recognition.
The commercial release of Office 10 is expected to be ready for shipment in the first half of next year, or about two years after Office 2000 first became available.
The new software -- which is expected to be the last version of Office based on the current set of code -- will be sold both as a packaged set of applications and as a rented service via the Internet.
The expanded collaboration capabilities that are being built into Office 10 include native support for XML in Excel and Access, an addition that Microsoft officials say will let end users visualise and manipulate XML data from within those applications. That will put Excel and Access on an equal footing with Microsoft Word, which can already be used to create XML-based documents.
Also part of Office 10 is a new tool tentatively called the Office Designer that will let system administrators develop Web-based workgroup applications in Visual Basic, according to Microsoft. In addition, Office 10 will ship along with Team Workspaces, a number of ready-made Web sites that offer collaborative features, such as group scheduling.
On the server side, meanwhile, the new applications will be able to make use of the Web Storage System, a multimedia storage technology that's also being built into Exchange 2000 and the forthcoming Tahoe document management server.
But Rob Enderle, an analyst at Giga Information Group says only a minority of companies use Microsoft Office as a collaboration tool today. And that isn't likely to change significantly overnight, he adds. "The primary tool of collaboration in most corporations is still email," Enderle says.
Microsoft says Office 10 also will mark the appearance of a user-interface feature called the Smart Tag, which can automatically link certain words to local or Internet-based information. For instance, a company name would automatically receive a Smart Tag that leads the user to that company's home page or stock quotes.
Addressing widespread security concerns, the new Office version will prevent users from opening email attachments that contain executable code. In addition, the applications won't automatically execute software scripts when users open documents, Microsoft says. Other new features include support for voice recognition and integration with Microsoft's Hotmail and MSN Messenger services.
Despite the additions, Office 10 isn't shaping up to be a major release for users, Enderle says. He adds that the software's main advances are in usability, with simpler menu structures and other user-interface tweaks.
"It's much easier to use the advanced features," Enderle says. In addition, the relative lack of significant enhancements "decreases the likelihood that [Microsoft] will be introducing any major bugs" to the software, he notes.