Microsoft Office will be taking a new direction with its next release, Office 12, chief software architect Bill Gates has revealed.
Speaking at Microsoft's annual CEO Summit earlier this month, Gates described "the new world of work" involving global business collaboration and managing "overwhelming streams of information". He said organisations and individuals faced complex demands in the always-on, always-connected digital work environment.
Microsoft aims to address these in Office 12, which is due for release in 2006.
The company is developing tools to address areas such as individual impact, collaboration, knowledge discovery and enterprise content lifecycle, said Chris Capossela, corporate vice-president of Microsoft's information worker product management group.
"For example, there will be new tools in Microsoft Office Powerpoint that automatically apply professional-quality formatting and layout to slides so people can focus their attention on the content," said Capossela.
A lot of work is being done around collaboration, particularly on integrating different communications channels, such instant messaging, phones, websites and e-mail. "End-users will be able to effortlessly share information between these different channels without really having to think about which one they are using," said Capossela.
Microsoft is also improving Sharepoint Portal Server's shared workspaces - a key strength of rival products from IBM Lotus and Opentext.
There will be better data visualisation in Excel, and the ability to create real-time visual dashboards directly from spreadsheet data.
IT managers will gain new content management tools, to define expiration and archival policies for content, and set up "approval workflows" for information.
However, the content management tools are unlikely to compete with high-end tools from the likes of EMC/Documentum, Filenet, Interwoven, and Vignette, said Kyle McNabb, senior analyst at Forrester Research.
"Microsoft's announcement hints at significant improvements in Microsoft's content, collaboration, portals, and office productivity tools and increases the likelihood that Microsoft will be one of the first suppliers to begin delivering partial information workplace solutions in the next two years, with a fuller offering delivered within the next five years," he said.
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Office 12 to offer better back-end links
Microsoft Office 12 will make more use of XML standards in order to improve interoperability with companies' back-end systems.
An early example of this is Microsoft's collaboration with SAP on project Mendocino, to offer access to SAP processes directly from Office. For instance, a worker using Outlook could submit a holiday request straight from their calendar, through a SAP process embedded into Outlook's toolbar.
Darrol Radley, SAP support organisation manager at DIY retailer Homebase, said, "Long-term, Mendocino has got a lot of potential. It is in its early stages, but points towards the type of processes we will take for granted in the future."