After releasing Beta 1 of Office 10 to testers at the beginning of August, Microsoft is finally ready to lift the veil of secrecy surrounding its Office 2000 successor.
On Tuesday, company officials agreed to go public with some of the features and design goals that Microsoft is building into what product manager Lisa Gurry called the "most significant and innovative release [of Office] we've ever had".
Gurry declined to say when Microsoft will issue Beta 2 of Office 10, but she confirmed it is due to ship in mid-2001. It is a stepping stone on the way to the version of Windows Office that Microsoft is calling Office.Net, due out in 2002.
With archrival Sun Microsystems breathing down its neck, Microsoft needs to make good on its Office 10 ship date and ease-of-use promises. Sun has announced plans to make an open source version 6.0 of its StarOffice suite available on 13 October. StarOffice 5.2 runs on everything from Windows 98 and Windows 2000, to Linux and Solaris.
With Office 10, Microsoft isn't attempting to tackle the long-running complaint of feature bloat. Instead, its goal is to make the bevy of Office features more accessible and easier to use, according to Gurry.
"We need to make it easier to use all of Office's rich functionality," she said. "We also need to give users better control of that functionality and for the Internet to work better with Office."
To that end, Microsoft is incorporating a new user interface option for all of Office 10's applications [except Outlook], an option Microsoft is calling the "Task Pane". Outlook, for its part, will rely on Microsoft's Digital Dashboard front end.
Microsoft also is adding other ease-of-use features to the suite, which is comprised of Word, Excel, Access, PowerPoint and Outlook: new "smart tags", are icons that automatically correct, format or paste data within Office and on the Web.
On the Outlook front, Microsoft is integrating both Hotmail and Microsoft Instant Messenger into its email client. And it is incorporating speech-recognition technology that will allow users to create and edit documents in all Office applications using speech commands.
"This marks the first time Microsoft is incorporating speech into a product," Gurry noted.
The company is adding security features throughout the suite. Microsoft refers to its next-generation auto-recovery and document-recovery technologies as "airbags for Office". Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook are all getting the airbag treatment, Gurry noted.
Microsoft will also extend group collaboration capabilities in Office 10 with enhanced document-routing features and "team workspace" Web sites that will allow multiple users to work together -- on a spreadsheet, for example -- online. By adding XML to file formats for Excel 10 and Access 10, it will be simpler for users to build Web applications, Gurry said.
Microsoft is promising full, backward compatibility with previous Office file formats. And Office 10 will not require additional hardware or system upgrades to run, Gurry added.