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TechXNY: Microsoft Tablet OS slated for November

Microsoft will launch its new tablet PC operating system in November, Microsoft group vice-president of productivity and business services Jeff Raikes said in his keynote speech at TechXNY in New York.

Raikes also briefly previewed Office 11, an update to Microsoft's Office suite that he said will be released in about a year and that will feature improvements for mobile workers.

Microsoft will launch the Windows XP Tablet PC Edition on 7 November with the backing of an array of hardware vendors including Hewlett-Packard, Acer, Fujitsu and Toshiba. The tablet PC "has been a long-held vision in our industry," Raikes said.

He shared the stage with a variety of devices from different vendors, illustrating the flexibility of the tablets' screens and their varied constructions, which included sleek industrial models for enterprise users, lightweight designs and ruggedly-built tablets intended for outdoor use.

Software developers supporting the launch include Corel, Adobe Systems, SAP and Franklin Covey. Raikes showed off several of their forthcoming products, illustrating how Adobe's graphics software and Franklin Covey's calendaring features can connect to other applications running on the tablet PC.

He also demonstrated several features of the tablet PC operating system using Microsoft's own applications. Handwriting-recognition features allow notes taken in Microsoft Word to be quickly transferred to other applications such as Outlook; handwritten notes can even be sent via e-mail, Raikes said.

One feature demonstrated that drew applause from the audience was the tablet PC's pressure-sensitive screen. Raikes showed how pressing hard on the screen draws a thick line, while a lighter touch sketches a thin one.

Raikes also used his keynote to announce the next version of Microsoft's Office suite which will succeed Office XP. The new version, Office 11, will be released in mid-2003, Raikes said, and will look to address some of the challenges mobile workers face in a corporate environment.

The only Office application update Raikes specifically discussed was Microsoft Outlook. The new Outlook will feature enhanced search and mobile-networking tools in an effort to help users better manage their e-mail inboxes.

Raikes also demonstrated Pocket PC Phone Edition, a version of the company's operating system for devices that combine the functions of a handheld PC and a cell phone. The software will debut within the next few months on systems from VoiceStream Wireless, Raikes said.

Another Microsoft product scheduled for launch shortly is an updated version of Microsoft Reader, Microsoft's e-books viewing software. Microsoft Reader 2.5 will be optimised for tablet PCs, Raikes said.

XML capabilities introduced to Word and Excel in Office XP will be extended throughout the Office suite in the coming revamp, Microsoft Office Product Manager Nicole von Kaenel said in an interview after the keynote.

"The whole concept [with Office 11] is making it a "smart client". It is no longer just about creating polished documents in Word, Excel and PowerPoint. We are trying to take it to the next level by allowing people to consume and analyse information and then share it with others,'' von Kaenel said.

Microsoft will also focus on improving the desktop suite's collaborative capabilities, an effort started within Office XP with the SharePoint Team Services application. In the next version of Office there will be tighter connections between the applications and Microsoft's NetMeeting product.

"Imagine the scenario where people go to a meeting and everyone has access to documents associated with that meeting, as well as contacts that could be shared across the group," von Kaenel said.

Perhaps the most dramatic improvement to the suite will be made to Outlook, which will feature a newly designed user interface, one that is less intrusive for people reading e-mails. Microsoft is doing away with vertical columns on the right side of the screen and is making a displayed e-mail message look more like a piece of paper. The text will take up a much larger portion of the screen, allowing the eye to move more naturally from left to right.

Microsoft is also making improvements to Outlook that will allow users to better organise their e-mail and offer more efficient ways of searching thousands of e-mail messages for specific information.

"People are living in their e-mail package more and more and are complaining about information overload. We think this can help them organise, search and file all those e-mails that are becoming an increasingly important data source," von Kaenel said.

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