Office 14 Starts Alpha Test but When is it Due?

Microsoft officials acknowledged on Tuesday that Office 14, the next major version of its suite of productivity applications, has entered alpha testing. Also sometimes referred to as a “pre-beta,” the release is going out to a “select” group of testers, according to a brief Microsoft statement.

“Microsoft has provided a select group of customers early access to an alpha version of Office server technologies. However, Microsoft is not disclosing information about the timing for a Beta version at this time,” a company spokesperson said in an e-mail to InternetNews.com.

Office 14 is only a codename for the next major release of Office. The current version is officially named 2007 Office System – though most often that’s shortened to Office 2007. It was originally codenamed Office 12. There will be no Office 13, though, apparently due to superstition surrounding the number 13.

While it’s the first, fleeting, look that users will get at the next Office, the fact that it’s going into alpha testing now, when Windows 7 began public beta testing on Saturday, indicates that it isn’t likely to ship in tandem with Windows 7.

Office 14 is scheduled to include updates to Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, along with OneNote, as well as SharePoint Server. Among the changes and additions will be more use of the “ribbon” user interface – also called “Fluent” – which was added in Office 2007.

Another addition will be browser-based versions of the Office applications. Dubbed Office Web, these will be scaled down editions of the main Office apps designed to run entirely within a browser.

Office Web is supposed to support Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Apple Safari browsers. They are meant to help to head off mass desertions from Microsoft’s bread and butter Office brand while emulating the Web-based model that some of its competitors have embraced.

“The Office Web apps complement Office on the desktop for people who use Office every day, as well as open the door to productivity for people who do not traditionally use Office programs on their desktop,” the spokesperson said.

Microsoft has disclosed little else regarding Office 14. However, Stephen Chapman, an influential Office and Windows blogger in Charlotte, NC, claims to have obtained Microsoft documents that give some features away, as well as recent schedules for Office 14.

“Everything I’ve posted within the past two weeks in regards to Office 14 is as recent as November 2008 but I’ve been following closely along the timelines for Office 14 since 2006 when they first started talking about it,” Chapman told InternetNews.com in an e-mail.

Next page: possible timeframe

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One chart, which purports to be from a presentation for Microsoft’s Partner Program, states that the next major release of Dynamics CRM will be “aligned with the Office 14 wave of product releases due in late 2009/early 2010.”

That jives with the beginning of alpha testing this week. Additionally, though, it indicates that schedule is unlikely to allow Microsoft to release Office 14 and Windows 7 in tandem, especially if Microsoft meets its accelerated goal for releasing Windows 7 in 2009 in time for back-to-school and holiday sales.

Although Microsoft sticks by its boilerplate answer that Windows 7 will ship within three years of the January 30, 2007 consumer delivery of Windows Vista, InternetNews.com reported this past September that Microsoft is actually targeting early June for Windows 7’s delivery to PC makers.

Chapman listed a number of other coming features on his blog. That includes a Multiple Activation Key similar to that found in Vista, which enables an administrator to activate multiple installations using a single key. It will also add support for hardware-based data execution prevention as well as a “protected view” facility that enables users to view questioned documents without any risk of malware attacks.

The Fluent UI will also be incorporated into virtually all the Office clients, including SharePoint sites, according to Chapman’s summary.

Second SP for Office 2007

Microsoft is also prepping a second service pack for Office 2007. SP2 will include native support for the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) standard OpenDocument Format (ODF) file formats. Last spring, Microsoft said it would release ODF support in SP2, which it said is due in the first half of 2009.

Microsoft also said last spring, however, that it would wait until it ships Office 14 to update its own Office Open XML (OOXML) file formats, which went through massive modifications in order to pass muster as an ISO co-standard with ODF last winter.

While OOXML gained the certification that Microsoft sought though, it meant that thousands of changes have to be incorporated into Office’s original default file formats before Office becomes compliant with Microsoft’s own standard.

Microsoft still plans to ship Office 2007 SP2, which is currently in beta test, during the first half, with ODF 1.1 support, a Microsoft spokesperson told InternetNews.com in an e-mail on Wednesday. The company has given no dates for Office 14 but the spokesperson confirmed that ISO OOXML support will be featured in that release.

Given that Office 14 is only beginning alpha test, that would tend to indicate that the updated applications suite will not ship in the same timeframe as Windows 7.

That’s all right, even good planning, according to one Microsoft observer.

“The general consensus is that Office 14 will not come out with Windows 7,” Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT, told InternetNews.com. “If you look back at the history of Office and Windows though, they were typically about 18 months apart [and] that makes incredibly good financial sense,” he added.

It makes sense, he said, because users – especially corporate users who are the largest purchasers of Office – find it easier to upgrade if they don’t have to pay for two major deployments – even though they are upgrades — simultaneously.

It’s easier for those organizations to manage their budgets – don’t forget the personnel costs to deploy new systems and applications — when they can stagger the payments, and it helps Microsoft keep revenues more consistent quarter to quarter as well.

“Getting back into the staggered release cycle is very good for them [Microsoft],” King said.

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