Microsoft Punches Clock on Office 12

Miscommunication and unproductively are the cornerstones of the humor of NBC’s “The Office.” They are the very problems Microsoft is trying to solve with the upcoming Microsoft Office 12.

The venerable suite, which includes Word, Excel and PowerPoint programs, is slated for beta later this fall and formal release in the second half of 2006.

Attendees of Microsoft’s Professional Developer Conference (PDC) next week in Los Angeles can expect glimpses of what developers have been working on since the last release of the product in October 2003. Several conference tracks are devoted to helping programmers to build on the Office platform.

“It’s disclosure time for office 12,” said Joe Wilcox, an analyst with JupiterResearch. “It will be the first time Microsoft begins to seriously talk about what the product will look at and new features will be.”

While not getting too specific, Microsoft has identified several Office 12 themes, including integration and collaboration.

The Office team has logged thousands of hours studying how their customers work. Not surprisingly, they found that workers are using more communications tools.

The opportunities are centered on melding these different tools such as instant messaging, phones, portals and e-mail, Chris Caposella, Microsoft’s vice president of information worker product management group, said in an interview posted on the company’s Web site.

The goal is for users to “effortlessly share information between these different channels without really having to think about which one they’re using,” Caposella said.

Microsoft has also been aggressively buying collaboration and communications technologies since the last version of Office. In March, it acquired peer-to-peer business collaboration software maker Groove Networks and last month it purchased Voice over Internet Protocol specialist Teleo.

Given the focus on collaboration and the need to give potential buyers a need to upgrade, it wouldn’t be surprising to see new technology integrated into Office, said JupiterResearch’s Wilcox (JupiterResearch and this site are owned by the same parent company).

While making Office more useful, the addition of new communications features could also make it more vulnerable, John Pescatore, a Gartner security analyst, said.

Although Microsoft has been quiet about Groove since the acquisition, Pescatore said Groove founder Ray Ozzie made security a priority when he started the company. That bodes well for integration into Office.

Besides collaboration and integration, Microsoft has plans for other improvements. For example, PowerPoint will automatically apply professional-quality formatting and layout to slides. Previously, these tools have been buried deep in option menus.

For IT managers, the Office 12 team will make it easier to centrally define archiving policies for content as well as set compliance, reporting and accuracy standards.

The revamped Office is being prepared at a time when several public sector customers are mulling a shift to open standards office applications.

Last week, Massachusetts said it is considering moving to open source software to make sure state documents and government records are accessible.

Microsoft indicated is taking steps to address those concerns. The default format for Word, Excel and PowerPoint in Office 12 will be completely open, meaning that users aren’t tied into Microsoft software open state files.

Industry-watchers expect Microsoft to meet its timetable for releasing Office 12. Beginning next week, the tech community will have a better idea of whether Microsoft will have a long-running hit on its hands or should begin searching for a mid-season replacement.

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