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Office 12 Beta Shows Off New UI

The beta 1 release of Office 12 is Microsoft's most ambitious release yet.

The limited technical preview of the next-generation business software suite was released in late December to around 10,000 customers and partners, as well as to attendees of Microsoft's Professional Developers Conference.

It's nearly twice the size of Office 2003, according to Microsoft , and its focus has gone from personal productivity to an integrated set of applications, servers and services.

The beta release, which Microsoft emphasized was not finished or necessarily stable, shows off a new user interface that's designed to expose formerly hidden functionality within applications.

Instead of pull-down menus, the new UI employs a "ribbon" metaphor organized around "scenarios," such as Write and Insert. Tools in the ribbon change depending on what the user is doing. For example, inserting a table causes tools to change its position or color to automatically appear.

For the visually oriented, galleries provide a visual way of finding tools by showing the results of commands. Live previews show how a gallery item would look before it's selected. Old-schoolers can add commands to a Quick Access Toolbar.

Word, Excel and PowerPoint now share a graphics and charting engine, so that graphics can be created from within any application. Templates and predefined formats make it quick to produce charts.

Word 12 documents can be converted to Adobe's PDF format from within Word. Document creators also can choose to save in Microsoft's XMP Paper Specification Format (XPS). XPS, formerly code-named Metro, is designed to enable the creation of a fixed document that will maintain its attributes when shared or printed.

A document inspector function will strip out hidden text, comments or personally identifiable information.

Excel 12 also surfaces tools contextually, and users can apply conditional formatting to help visualize the data. The new application supports spreadsheets as large as 1 million rows by 16,000 columns, allowing users to work with much more data. Microsoft is building in business intelligence features to make Excel more of an analysis tool.

Outlook 12 has greatly expanded calendar publishing and sharing capabilities and improved access to SharePoint information. A To-Do Bar shows flagged e-mails and tasks, and it automatically imports tasks stored in other Microsoft collaboration applications, such as OneNote and Windows SharePoint Services. An integrated search feature searches all Outlook items.

PowerPoint has a redesigned user interface with slide libraries that allow users to re-use content or store individual slides on different servers within Microsoft Office System. There are new text formatting options and better graphics functionality.

Microsoft's new Office XML Formats are the defaults for the revamped Word, Excel and PowerPoint applications. In addition to smaller file sizes and easier recovery, Microsoft said the formats let users marry data from disparate sources and more easily exchange data between Office and other enterprise applications.

A second beta release of Office 12 is scheduled for this spring, with the final product slated for release in the second half of 2006. In a note accompanying the beta DVD, Microsoft said that it hasn't yet finalized the system requirements for running Office 12. The beta release supports upgrading from Office 2003 and Office XP.