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The features and functions were revealed when Microsoft launched the initial beta test of version 11 of Office to a select group of users last week. The company has not revealed how many testers have received copies but it is believed to be in the region of 3,000, with a broader public beta test due to start early next year.
Office 11 will be given an official product name - expected to reflect its .net Web services capabilities - when the final release goes on sale in the middle of 2003. Pricing will also be revealed nearer the shipping date.
XML, the tagging standard for structuring data within an application, will allow Office applications to directly access and display formatted Web pages in the same way as a Web browser does today.
Similarly, documents created in Office can be posted to a Web site without requiring specialised formatting. This is just the basic role XML will play - tagged data will be put to other uses in what Microsoft is calling "smart documents".
In Office XP, Microsoft introduced smart tags, which were originally intended to "sense" specific events and react accordingly. An event might be a user writing a person's name: this would cause the smart tag to draw in information, such as the company the person worked for and its address, and an icon would appear which, when clicked on, could pull this information into the document.
Smart documents take this concept further by allowing context-specific information relating to the document to be presented to the user. Microsoft gives the example of an expense report which could provide a link to an online mobile phone bill or credit card statement and could even make the company expense reporting policy document available.
These extra resources would be presented in a task pane displayed down one side of the screen beside the document or spreadsheet being worked on.
User concerns about security forced Microsoft to rethink its smart tags policy but the company has presumably addressed this issue for smart documents. There will also be concerns regarding the ability to access XML documents from non-Microsoft products and browsers over the Web because this could be taken advantage of by hackers.
On the workgroup front, Office will be tightly integrated with Microsoft's Sharepoint Team Services collaboration environment. Documents can be made available across a workgroup to allow several people to work on the same document and will show what changes have been made as the document develops.
On a product-specific basis, Microsoft has only revealed its plans for the Outlook e-mail manager. The most radical change is in Outlook's interaction with the Exchange e-mail server. Instead of storing e-mails on the server, they will be downloaded to the client computer and regular synchronisation will keep the user updated.
This not only allows managers to save server space but also enables faster and wider searches for specific e-mails and groups of e-mails.
Searches will encompass a single e-mail folder, a group of folders or the whole of Outlook. Finds can then be moved or copied to a new folder for easy access at a later date.
What is a smart document?
Through the use of XML-tagged data, smart documents allow context-specific information relating to an Office file to be presented to the user. Thus an expense report could provide a link to an online mobile phone bill or credit card statement.