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Microsoft shows off Office 2000

The company previews a much-anticipated update to its desktop applications package, Office 2000, to a group of 500 "key" customers.

Microsoft last night previewed a much-anticipated update to its desktop applications package, Office 2000, to a group of 500 "key" customers at the PC Expo show in New York, according to the company.

Microsoft plans to ship a beta version of the product next month. The company said the suite includes new Web-based features that will enable customers to use the Internet to collaborate and share information, as well as access and analyze business data.

Office 2000 incorporates HTML as a file format and Web posting features through a "save as" dialogue box which allows customers to post information to the Web.

The applications suite also includes a browser-based Office Web Discussions feature which will allow users to collaborate in discussions inside of a Web page as they read and browse, the company said.

"It is the first enterprise-ready product we've really provided" out of the Office camp, said director of Office marketing Dennis Tevlin. "And it is the first time we have fully embraced the Web."

As previously reported, the new version of Office is a radical departure from previous releases. Microsoft will recast Office as a series of application components, including Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, and Outlook, which can be distributed and managed from a central server. That's a major shift from the company's previous "no-component" stance.

When Lotus Development and Corel first introduced plans to build componentized versions of their business application suites, Microsoft initially pooh-poohed the idea.

Now the software giant is fully embracing the component strategy, with one notable difference: Office 2000 is not based on Java, as are competitive component suites.

Although he said Javascript was used in some limited features in the suite, the component architecture itself is written to the COM specification. Not surprisingly, Tevlin questioned Java's robustness. "We feel that Java just isn't mature enough yet," he said.

Along with the HTML file format, Office 2000 will also support XML (extensible markup language) as a way to define objects, such as charts and revision marks, Microsoft said. The suite will allow Web-based document collaboration. Now that HTML has been elevated to the standard file format in the suite, users will be able to publish documents to the Web, manage Web-based documents, and enable real-time document collaboration.

Through server-based tools, Office users will also be able to access reporting, analysis, and tracking applications through a Web browser interface.

As previously reported, IT managers will be able to install Office as a set of applications that can be mixed and matched. The suite can also be run directly from a server installation.

In response to customer concerns, Microsoft product managers last night told customers that they will make cross-version document sharing easier by making Office 2000 file formats unchanged from those in Office 97. An exception is Microsoft Access, which is changing to incorporate support for Unicode, a kind of encoding that lets applications use a variety of writing systems, including those that require double-byte characters such as Japanese and Chinese.

Unicode has been a feature of Windows NT and to a lesser degree Windows 95 for several years, which has made building internationalized applications easier, according to the company.