MS unleashes Office 11 on beta testers

Microsoft is set to deliver to selected beta testers an early version of its long-awaited Office 11 desktop suite that will feature versions of Word, Excel and Access that fully support XML.

To be made available to only a "few thousand" testers, Microsoft officials will be heavily emphasising the new suite's ability to better connect people with each other in order to better collaborate and share data more seamlessly, but also to connect business processes both inside and outside the firewall.

"Companies have made large investments in systems to collect data from distributed warehouses, but that data is in widely disparate formats and not accessible by users to make decisions for themselves. That last mile has been missing that makes that data useful. We are beginning to address those issues with XML in these products," said Simon Marks, product manager for Office 11.

With the added XML support, users can now create more dynamic documents that inherently contain XML code, allowing them to be more easily accessed and shared among a wide range of users.

"Users can build smart documents that allow them to start building solutions from within a Word document, rather than starting to build solutions starting from outside the document, which is the way it is done now," Marks said.

As one example, Marks said Excel users doing an expense report can now directly connect to multiple internal and external data sources, such as a database containing credit card information, and import that data directly into the expense report and then share it across multiple environments.

Similarly, users can connect business processes involving much more sophisticated applications, such as CRM, in order to connect transactions more quickly as well as establish more efficient communications with business partners and suppliers.

Microsoft is also building into each of the Office applications the Research Task Pane, an XML-based capability that allows users to do searches of any XML-based data source available on the Web from within a Word document.

Trying to improve the suite's collaborative capabilities, the new betas will feature tighter connections to the company's SharePoint Team Services 2.0, which is scheduled to be delivered around the same time as Office 11, namely mid-2003.

Microsoft is also building into the applications many of SharePoint's tools that company officials hope will encourage users to do both more lower-level, ad hoc collaborations, as well as providing better access to SharePoints custom Web sites where they can, for instance, manage on-line meetings.

The new suite will also feature built-in instant messaging, allowing users to be aware of who is coming on or going offline from within a document. Users can also kick off a session from within a spreadsheet or word processor.

Office 11 will also feature an easier-to-use Outlook mail client that allows users to more easily sort through thousands of e-mails. The product will feature a much larger area on-screen dedicated to the e-mail's content, making it easier for users to read. Outlook also now has the ability to detect a slow online connection and will automatically download only the necessities of a file, such as its content, but eliminate things such as headers.

Microsoft will release a second, much more widely circulated public beta, sometime early next year. Company officials said the finished version of the product is still on track to be released in the middle of next year.