What is it?
In November 2005 Microsoft released a beta version of Office 12, which marked the biggest changes to its ubiquitous productivity suite in 10 years. The most striking change is the much simplified "results-oriented" user interface, which concentrates on the functions people use every day, rather than burying them among once-in-a-blue-moon features.
Function creep had seen the number of commands in Office grow from about 100 to more than 1,500. With version 12, Microsoft has responded to the evidence that many people do not need or want this level of sophistication - in 2005 it was estimated that 30% of the user base was still working happily with Office 97.
Microsoft has also tackled the challenge of open standards products such as Openoffice, and the Oasis Open Document format. By default, Office 12 documents will be based on new, XML-based file formats.
However, analyst firm Gartner has warned that although Office 12 may improve user productivity, it could complicate migrations, with Windows Vista and a major upgrade to SQL Server also in the pipeline. The new interface may alienate both change-resistant users and advanced practitioners who know their way around Office XP/2003, and mixed Office environments could increase support costs.
Where did it originate?
Microsoft Office was first released for the Macintosh in 1989, followed by a Windows version in 1990. Word (1983) and Excel (1987) pre-date the wide acceptance of Windows.
What's it for?
The "core" applications in Office have expanded from Word, Excel, Powerpoint, the Access database and Outlook to include Infopath, Onenote, Publisher, Project, Visio, Groove Virtual Office, and "new server-based functionality to help amplify customers' ability to successfully manage the creation, consumption and flow of information".
What makes it special?
Microsoft said the new Office XML formats would enable better data integration between documents and back-end systems. The specification is open and royalty-free, encouraging other software providers to integrate Office documents into their products.
Some high-profile users had proposed dropping Office in favour of the Oasis Open Document format. The Oasis Open Document committee includes IBM and Adobe, and Staroffice supplier Sun. Both Staroffice and Openoffice use Open Document.
How difficult is it to master?
In spring 2005, Microsoft said it would take between two days and two weeks to adapt to Office 12.
Gartner said the potential retraining costs could be a deterrent, even though there would be subsequent productivity benefits.
What systems does it run on?
An upgrade will be released to enable Office 2003 and XP to use the XML file format.
What's coming up?
Office 12 is promised for the end of this year. Despite many powerful enhancements, Gartner said most enterprises would find it hard to justify upgrading in 2007 and 2008.
Microsoft has submitted Open XML to standards body ECMA, with the ultimate goal of making it an ISO standard. However, Gartner said businesses that could exploit XML for significant advantage should adopt Open Document now, rather than waiting for OpenXML to be standardised.
Among the Open Document alternatives to Office suggested by Gartner was IBM's Workplace, which it said was "far more real today than Office 12".
First-line Office support roles pay between £18,000 and £25,000, and support analysts can earn up to £35,000. Migration, consultancy and retraining may provide higher-paid opportunities.
Training is widely available from Microsoft and its training partners. Further information on Office 12 can be found on the Microsoft website.