A new version of Office could be closer than expected if Microsoft decides to release an interim version of its Windows operating system before the debut of Longhorn.
Microsoft's Office team was closely following a project named Windows XP Reloaded on the Windows side of the company, a Microsoft official said.
The XP Reloaded project is exploring ways to deliver further updates to Windows XP after the release of Service Pack 2 (SP2) later this year and before the release of Longhorn.
"When the Windows team does innovation within their operating system, we are going to take advantage of that innovation," director of Office product management at Microsoft, Gytis Barzdukas, said. "When the Windows guys rev, we're going to be interested in revving also."
But while the Windows XP Reloaded talks could lead to a revision of Windows before Longhorn, it was too early to draw any firm conclusions, Microsoft said.
The same goes for the Office team.
"We don't have a definitive plan," Barzdukas said. "We haven't made a decision to do something interim between now and Longhorn,"
A new Office version only made sense if the update to Windows contained features the productivity applications could take advantage of, Barzdukas said.
Changes to the user interface or Windows storage technology, for example, would be a reason to come out with a new version of Office, he said.
Analysts at Gartner predicted earlier this year that Microsoft would offer interim releases of Windows and Office prior to the release of Longhorn to appease customers who signed up for its Software Assurance licensing program, which provides three-year contracts for software maintenance and upgrades.
Longhorn is the code name for a major new operating system release expected in about 2006.
Microsoft has said that about the same time of the Longhorn OS release it would offer a new version of Office and new server products.
Meanwhile, various news reports suggest that Windows XP Reloaded will pack no significant new features, and will instead be a bundle of Windows XP with all updates and patches and a new version of Windows Media Player. Such a bundle would allow PC vendors to ship systems with up to date Windows software and save users from downloading the updates released since Windows XP became available in December 2001.
With a minor revision of the operating system, any updates to the Office suite would also be incremental and probably be nothing more than a service pack, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft, Paul DeGroot, said.
"It really depends on whether this interim version of Windows really contains any dramatic new features that are going to affect the way applications run," he said.
For now, Microsoft said it was concentrating on the release of Windows XP SP2 and Office 2003 SP 1.
Both service packs are due out midyear.
The Windows XP service pack is a security-focused update, while the Office service pack offers bug fixes and additional features, especially for the InfoPath Extensible Markup Language (XML) form manager.