Microsoft offers peek at next Office suite

Software giant offers few specifics, but areas it sees ripe for improvement include enhanced collaboration and individual productivity.

REDMOND, Wash.--After months of remaining nearly mum about the next version of Office, Microsoft is slowly breaking the silence.

The company is still not discussing the specifics on most of the features it will add with Office 12, but it is promising to have the productivity software suite ready by the second half of next year. The company is also talking about some broad areas that it sees as ripe for improvement, including enhanced collaboration. Among the other key areas are individual productivity, finding business information and managing corporate business documents.

"There are things that are still hard as well as things that have gotten harder," Microsoft Group Vice President Jeff Raikes said in an interview.


What's new:
The software giant is shedding a little light on what to expect in its next productivity software suite, but the company is still keeping us in the dark on specifics.

Bottom line:
Some broad areas that it sees as ripe for improvement include enhanced collaboration, individual productivity, finding business information and managing corporate business documents.

More stories on Microsoft Office.

Some things, like e-mail, have improved, but nonetheless raised new challenges. Raikes noted studies that show that the average worker gets about 10 times as much e-mail now as in 1997. That's projected to increase another fivefold in the next four years, Raikes said.

To handle that increase, as well as the rise of instant messaging and other forms of electronic communication, Microsoft is trying to develop software that can do a better job of sorting out the really important messages. The concept of setting rules that let designated contacts such as one's boss or children reach their intended recipient in a meeting while everyone else gets sent to voice mail has been around for a while, but Raikes said that scenario is getting closer to reality.

"The vision will always continue to expand," Raikes said. But "it's sort of a major leap in that direction."

For Microsoft, the need for a compelling new release is critical. Along with Windows, the Office suite is one of two cash cows for the software maker. The vast majority of the company's profits come from those two products.

Not surprisingly, Microsoft is choosing a key audience with which to first share its Office 12 plans. Chairman Bill Gates is set to discuss the software in a speech Thursday at the company's CEO Summit here, which is expected to be attended by Amazon's Jeff Bezos and Best Buy's Brad Anderson, as well as many other prominent chief executives.

The new Office edition is slated to come at roughly the same time as Longhorn, the next version of Windows. However, the company has scrapped earlier plans that would have seen the two products tightly coupled together. Office 12 is expected to run on both Longhorn and older versions, with the major changes to Office not dependent on any shifts in Windows.

Microsoft did offer a few specific features it plans to add. As part of its attempt to let workers better make sense of ever-growing amounts of data, the company is adding into Excel the ability to create

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