Microsoft has begun shipping Beta 2 versions of its next Office package to its partners around the world in the lead-up to the software's official release next Autumn.
The software giant has yet to christen the latest version, codenamed Office 10. The company maintains the suite will be the first Office offering to make good on its much-touted .Net strategy by allowing users to employ more functionality, such as speech, Hotmail, and instant messaging integration and enhanced data recovery features.
For the first time, Microsoft will use a subscription system on its upgrade cycle to homes and small businesses. Customers will pay a lower up-front price to purchase the product on an annual basis and receive upgrades as they become available. The package will be sold through retail stores and subscriptions will be renewed in stores, or over the telephone or Internet.
The new Office software will also feature smart tags - icons which appear while the user is working to provide information or formatting options.
"In past Office versions we have incorporated automatic functionality such as bullets and formatting," said Microsoft Office product manager, Lisa Gurry. "And from feedback, 95 per cent of the time we got it right, but that 5 per cent where we didn't was frustrating for users."
The smart tags are part of Microsoft's push for more intuitive functionality - a factor which the company thinks will be vital in future versions of the software.
"Office 2000 was deployed twice as fast as Office 97 because of that functionality."
Microsoft introduced the first Beta version to the market in August and is yet to decide on whether it will release another version before the final product ships. This will be determined by industry feedback, Gurry said.
Microsoft will also make its smart tags extensible to third parties and developers so they can create their own smart tags. It will set up a smart tag gallery to keep track of the tags.
"There is a huge opportunity for our partners. We are working with a broad set of partners right now," Gurry explained. "It is a simple API [application programming interface] which will be documented on our Web site. The types of tags that could be created are endless and it is a great opportunity for our partners to pull Internet functionality into Office."
Users will have the ability to turn the smart tags off and Microsoft is encouraging developers to integrate an uninstall option.
The new suite also incorporates Microsoft's Instant Messaging as a field in its Outlook mail program and allows users to save files directly to the Internet.