Local retailers can expect a new approach from Microsoft Australia with the eagerly anticipated next gen- eration of the software giant's highly popular Office suite. It is currently slated, and on target, for a February 1999 shipping date.
Meanwhile, Front Page 2000, yet another upgrade from the MS Office lineage, and a new product called PhotoDraw 2000, were making their first appearances in the US last week with both expected to be winners for retailers and natural allies for Windows 98 and the Office suite.
Drew Sharp, Microsoft Aust-ralia's products marketing manager, desktop applications division, is the person in charge of local sales of the MS Office family through retail outlets.
He told ARN last week that, while there has been no slippage in the proposed rollout of Office 2000, he cannot yet put a definite release date on the product which generates more than half the company's retail revenues.
"I won't be announcing the shipping plans until we see an RTM (release to manufacture) form come down from the States," said Sharp. "But I can tell you that it will launch simultaneously in Australia and the States and that there will be a new skew this time around - a super set of Office Professional tools.
Bundling with Office
"The new option will be stepping up even further from the Office Professional suites that we are already selling. The strategy has not been revealed at this stage, so I can't say too much but that the super set will contain other Microsoft products in the box.
"That will be a very exciting product for retail and will also create interesting opportunities in other areas of the channel. When released, it will make tonnes of sense too as to why these products need to be coupled to Office," he said.
Sharp said the Office family has been a huge success for Microsoft in Australia with penetration of its top spec, Office Professional, into small business and the home through retail described as being "huge".
"Australians just love the deluxe version of Office and seem to be more than happy to pay out the few extra coins required to get the better version," he said. "On a pro rata basis, we far outweigh the States for penetration of Office Professional and that is a pattern that has been evident for the last four to five years."
While Sharp indicated there are no new suites planned for the near future - just tweaks to the tried and trusted packages - he did say that PhotoDraw 2000 will have success in retail space and is also on schedule for early 1999 shipment.
According to Sharp, PhotoDraw will have a $259 price tag and it will be aimed directly at the Corel Draw and Photoshop business graphics tool market. He said that as more consumers and small businesses start to use image-editing technology, there will be demand for intensive or "professional" tools but without the big price tickets.
Defending the $259 price ticket as being suitable for this sort of product and attractive to consumers, Sharp said: "When you consider that Corel has an upgrade price of $479 and a new end user price of $799 - suddenly $259 for PhotoDraw is compelling."
"PhotoDraw is actually positioned between Corel Draw and Photoshop," said Sharp. "It has a lot of high-end image manipulation tools as well as high-powered drawing tools. It will also offer tight integration with Office 2000."
While only representing a small proportion of overall sales to Microsoft, the other topical area of interest this month is games, and Microsoft has recently launched a couple that are sure to attract sales over Christmas.
"We don't have a particularly big portfolio of games and will probably only release two or three this year, but Flight Simulator is a perennial performer for us," said Sharp. "It just keeps going strong for us and for this Christmas we have introduced the new iteration - Combat Flight - which takes the whole genre to a new level."
"The thing about our games - and this is where we are a little different from other games vendors - is that we have been able to develop a hardware device for which our software is being purpose built. Our Force Feedback games control device offers retailers a great opportunity to sell a piece of software with the hardware."
"The games will help drive the sales of the hardware and vice versa," said Sharp.