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Office 12: Is that your spreadsheet on my server?

Microsoft outlines key improvements in the next version of Office, including a server-based system for managing Excel spreadsheets.

With the next version of Office, Microsoft is trying to help inspire smarter cubicle dwellers.

The notion of "business intelligence," or easy access to critical company data, is one of the key areas for improvement that the company has identified for the next version of its flagship desktop software. On Monday, the company shared some of its plans in that area, including the outlines of a new server-based system for managing Excel spreadsheets.

As part of , Microsoft will add the ability to store and manage spreadsheets from a central server, allowing companies to create business rules around how different workers can access the data. Microsoft remains vague on how it will sell the new ability. The company has said the server-based "Excel Services" abilities will come as part of a future version of the company's SharePoint technology.

Today, Microsoft has two different products using the SharePoint name. One is Windows SharePoint Services, a free downloadable add-on to Windows Server 2003 that offers basic file sharing and portal abilities. Microsoft also sells a separate, broader server software package known as SharePoint Portal Server 2003. A company representative declined to say how Excel Services will be offered.

Microsoft also announced new abilities of the Excel desktop software, including tools for better visualizing data as well as the ability to maintain a persistent connection to server applications including back-end software such as programs from SAP, Oracle and Siebel Systems.

Executives at Microsoft say all of the improvements are designed to broaden the number of workers who have access to the needed numbers to understand their business.

"Until now, Business Intelligence software has been too complex, costly, and disconnected from the software tools people use every day to do their jobs," Jeff Raikes, Microsoft Business Division president, said in a statement.

The company is also readying an all-new user interface with Office 12. A beta version of the new Office is slated for next month, with the final version due in the second half of next year.

In the shorter term, Microsoft is also announcing the Nov. 1 availability of Microsoft Office Business Scorecard Manager, a previously disclosed server-based program for monitoring key business data. The product will cost $5,000 for the server software plus a $175 fee for each user that connects to the server, Microsoft said.

The Redmond, Wash.-based company released a second beta version of the scorecard software in July. IBM is coming out with its own corporate dashboard software as part of its Websphere line.

Business Objects, which already offers business intelligence software, downplayed Microsoft's chances.

"Customers want access to all their data, something Microsoft will always struggle with," said Rene Bonvanie, chief marketing officer for Business Objects, in a statement. "What good is it to look at only 40 percent of your company's data, when you are responsible for 100 percent of your company's performance?"

Bonvanie made it clear that Business Objects intends to defend its turf. "This is our market, and Business Objects is orders of magnitude larger, even on Microsoft's own platform," Bonvanie said.