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Beta of Office more widely available

Microsoft makes a "technical refresh" for the second test version of Office 2003 available to all 600,000 beta testers. It was initially available only to a select group.

Microsoft has announced general availability of an update to the latest trial version of its Office software.

The software giant last week issued a "technical refresh" for the second beta version of Office 2003, the company's high-profile revamp of the market-leading package of productivity applications. The refresh initially was available only to a select group of 10,000 "technical" testers. The company on Monday made it available to all 600,000 beta testers.

As previously reported, the update is available only as a download from Microsoft's Office update site, even though most beta testers received their initial software on CDs. The download for the refresh can be as large as 400MB for testers trying out all the applications included in Microsoft's newly rebranded Office System.

The technical refresh largely consists of changes Microsoft made to the software based on feedback from testers of the first beta version. The move is unusual for the software giant, which was expected to stick to a schedule of two major trial releases, and could indicate a delay in retail availability of Office 2003.

However, Microsoft executives told CNET last week that Office 2003 was still on track to ship to manufacturers in "late summer."

Office 2003 is considered a major shift in direction for Microsoft. After disappointing upgrade sales for Office XP, the current version of the package, Microsoft is hoping to convince business customers to move up to the new version with features that use XML (extensible markup language) to tie Office documents into backend business software.