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Microsoft starts giant Office beta programme

Microsoft will release the public beta of the next version of Microsoft Office today, aiming to reach half a million users in one of its biggest programmes to test out new software.

Office 2003 which, until now, was known by the codename Office 11, will launch mid-year and includes two new applications, a new interface for sorting e-mails in Outlook, and several other tweaks aimed at enticing customers to upgrade.

"We're going to be making 500,000 copies available, which is one of the largest beta programs Microsoft has ever done - certainly the largest Office beta we've ever done," said Simon Marks, product manager for Microsoft Office.

To take part users must have either Windows 2000 with Service Pack 3 or Windows XP.

Microsoft is also changing the way it markets the product to position it as a more essential tool for businesses. The official name for its Office family is now Microsoft Office System, and Microsoft will try to position the products as a "unified platform" that can be customised to make businesses more efficient, rather than as individual applications for boosting personal productivity.

With that in mind, for example, Microsoft included version 2.0 of SharePoint Portal Server as part of the beta, which lets teams of workers collaborate on projects over the web using various Office applications. It has also emphasised greater support for XML (Extensible Markup Language), making it easier to import data from backend systems into applications such as Excel.

Marks acknowledged that many businesses have only just begun to make their CRM and ERP systems XML-ready, but argued that the added XML support in Office will give them one more reason to do so.

The software suite also boasts a new logo that looks more like a flower than like the traditional Windows motif. And all of the applications now include Office in the title, creating Office Front Page 2003 and Office Word 2003, for example.

One of the new applications is OneNote, which is intended to be the digital answer to the notepad and pen and lets users jot down notes anywhere on a  page and saves them as they are created. The other is InfoPath, for creating forms where users can save data in the XML format, making them readable by back-end business software.

The beta also includes Business Contact Manager, an add-on to Outlook that aims to provide CRM capabilities for businesses with up to 25 employees that do not require a more powerful, specialised CRM tool.

Also new is "information rights management", which allows users to put restrictions on who can copy, forward or edit documents created using Word, PowerPoint and other applications. The beta also includes new tools in Outlook for filtering junk mail.

One analyst said Office 2003 fixes some bugs and adds a handful of new features that businesses will appreciate. But on the whole the product offers relatively few changes compared with past upgrades and is unlikely to encourage customers to upgrade on a wide scale, particularly at a time when budgets are tight, said Paul DeGroot, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft.

"The Office suite is a very mature product with a large installed base. A lot of people are comfortable with the current version and Office 2003 doesn't offer any dramatic benefits [over the previous release]. I don't expect this to be a barnstormer," he said.

Rival Corel is planning a new version of its WordPerfect suite for late April, while Sun Microsystems will issue a beta of the next version of its StarOffice suite later this week.

More information about the beta program is at http://www.microsoft.com/office/preview


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