Microsoft has begun beta tests on a major upgrade to its Office suite with a few thousand users. A broader test is scheduled for early next year, with general availability planned for mid-2003.
Company execs are emphasizing XML-enabled additions to the desktop-applications package, which is licensed for use to 170 million people worldwide. The upgrade, being called Office 11, is "about connecting business processes, connecting people, and connecting and managing information," lead product manager David Jaffe says.
Among the new features are Smart Documents, which Jaffe describes as a task pane on the right side of a Word or Excel document capable of linking, via XML, to data that resides in another app or on a server. That would make it possible, for example, to complete an expense report by clicking on one icon to pull expense information from an American Express bill and another icon to submit the report to accounts payable.
Microsoft programmers have also integrated Office's E-mail client, Outlook, with the existing capabilities of Sharepoint Team Services, letting multiple users collaboratively create and revise, say, a Word document. In Office 11, people would be able to distribute documents as E-mail attachments--a preferred method of collaboration among workers, Jaffe says--then work on those documents through multiple iterations using Sharepoint, something that's not possible in the current version of Office.
Outlook would get spiffed up, too. Users, for example, will be able to create permanent folders in the E-mail client that contain all messages based on a given search criteria, even when those same messages are stored in other folders. That will give workers more flexibility in organizing their messages. And a new feature called Quick Flags would let users attach color-coded flags to messages as reminders that follow-up action is required.
Jaffe said Microsoft has not decided how a new XML formatting tool called XDocs, unveiled two weeks ago and slated for delivery about the same time as Office 11, would be packaged with Office 11 or even if it will be part of the applications suite.