Microsoft's release of Office 97 next quarter will be a major upgrade to the architecture and interface of the suite, with a new Office Assistant help wizard and three other shared components that integrate functionality between applications. The four new shared components include the Office Assistant, the OfficeArt tool for drawing, customisable commands and toolbars and support for the IntelliMouse point-and-click device.
Analysts say component sharing will change the way applications are used. "Office 97 mixes and matches the componentry at a level that we've never seen before," says Harry Fennick, an analyst with Zona Research, in Redwood City, California. "Soon enough, every tool will be available inside every application. You'll only launch the piece of the application you want rather than the whole application. It's a very good architectural decision."
The Office Assistant, an animated Einstein character or any of nine other figures, provides help and tips tailored to individual users' needs across all the applications. If a user masters a spreadsheet procedure, for example, the assistant will stop offering tips for that function.
The social intelligence research behind the wizard was conducted by two Stanford University professors who say that in the future, inference engines will be able to gather even more information on users' habits. "Systems will eventually be able to gather information on how people think about problems and present solutions modeled on that," says Clifford Nass, a professor of communications at Stanford, in Palo Alto, California. "Does the user like definitive answers or do they like a wide range of choices, for example."
Dennis Tevlin, group product manager at Microsoft, in Redmond, Washington, says the new wizards should help reduce IS support costs by reducing the number of calls for help from end-users. "It's a way to address usability," Tevlin says.
To customise application tools, users can drag and drop toolbar items into menus and vice-versa. ActiveX controls -- form controls, a PowerPoint animation player, and others -- will be shipped with the suite, and new controls written in Visual Basic and Java can be added as they evolve. Independent software vendors could take advantage of the component integration by developing vertical applications that link to Office applications and access all the component parts of the suite.
Currently, Internet Explorer runs Office applications in a combined interface, with toolbars from both programs on the screen. When ActiveX and other components are added to either application, they could be linked together for more integration.