With Office 11 still at a pre-public beta stage of development and not slated to ship for about eight months, Microsoft is starting to give briefings ‘at a conceptual level’ about what it plans will be its next major revenue stream. With no significant competition left for its Office suite, Microsoft no longer has to fight the ‘feature wars’. Instead, to persuade businesses to upgrade their Office installations, Microsoft’s focus for Office 11 is on the benefits it will bring to organisations through ‘empowerment of their information workers’. Speaking at the first technical briefing for UK journalists in London last week, Simon Marks -- US product manager for Office 11 -- revealed two major areas of development, plus long-awaited enhancements for Outlook. The announcement that the two areas of development involve XML (eXtensible Markup Language) and collaboration brought on an acute feeling of déjà vu. In fact, the XML-related developments turned out to be very interesting and are intended to push Office 11 into a more strategic role within an organisation as an enabling tool in its information management strategy. Office’s 11’s XML developments are not aimed so much at the end user as at the ‘information architect’ -- the person who decides what information is released within an organisation and the form in which it is released. Office 11 is intended to provide an XML-enabled platform and tools through which ‘official’ data -- that is data that has been released for consumption -- can be accessed, used and reused efficiently.
Both Word and Excel in their Office 11 incarnations, have been re-engineered to work with data tagged with XML labels and, more importantly, with ‘libraries’ of XML-tagged data. For example, individual items in a quarterly revenue data set -- such as sales of widgets, grommets and flanges in regions X, Y and Z in the previous accounting period -- can all be given ‘official’ XML tags and then made available internally via an Office 11 Sales data ‘library’. Both Excel 11 and Word 11 give access to such libraries through an XML Task pane from where tagged data items can be dragged into a worksheet or document. In addition, Word 11 now Excel 11 support Smart Documents -- ‘templates’ specially created to work with officially XML-tagged data. For example, a sales revenue analysis Smart Doc into which items from the current Sales data set are automatically imported when they become available, is one example of the way that Word 11 Smart Documents could be created to support routine analysis without requiring manual data entry.
Collaboration gets a boost in Office 11 through enhancements to document sharing features in SharePoint Team Services (SPTS) version 2, which will ship at the same time as Office 11. SPTS 2 beefs up its document version control and document check-in and check-out is accessed transparently from a Task Pane. Links with Microsoft’s Instant Messenger services will provide presence status for team members -- whether colleagues are available online -- automatically. Sections of Office 11 documents can be locked so that they can be edited only by named individuals. When a shared document is modified, individuals can opt to be alerted automatically by email. Usefully, at the time a shared document is opened within Word 11, any changes made since they last opened it are displayed to the user. Office 11 also supports real time document sharing with notification of any conflicts between the local and server copies when the document is saved.
The development that will gladden the hearts of most Office users is a much-needed re-vamp of Outlook. Incorporation of Microsoft’s ClearType technology now dramatically transforms the readability of email messages. Email access and management has also been enhanced. The option to view email grouped by Today and Yesterday and the ability to create folders that automatically display correspondence from specific individuals or conversations now give sensible access to email. Collaboration also gets a boost through Outlook 11’s ability to view team members’ calendars side-by-side. The Outlook developments and the enhanced collaboration features provide good reasons for considering an upgrade to Office 11. Support for XML libraries and Smart Documents will take longer to assess since their contributions have to be seen within the context of an organisation’s overall information management strategy -- with the implication that it has to be redesigned.