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Office 97 is put to work

Vowing to "take leadership through innovation," Bill Gates unveils the new version of Microsoft's desktop applications suite.

NEW YORK--Microsoft (MSFT) chairman Bill Gates today unveiled Office 97, a new version of the company's desktop applications suite with Web links, predicting that 1997 will be the year that rank-and-file computer users become true Netizens.

Speaking to an audience packed with customers and software developers here, Gates trumpeted his company's move to embrace the Internet last year and outlined plans to move the Internet farther to the fore, using Office 97 as the centerpiece of Microsoft's Net strategy this year.

"We have brought the two worlds [of paper- and Web-based publishing] together" with Office 97, said Gates, vowing to "take leadership through innovation" as an Internet company.

Gates and Richard Fade, vice president of desktop applications, touted the suite as Microsoft's biggest effort to date to bring Internet features and Web publishing to the world's largest audience of mainstream computer users. The "productivity suite" lets users create hypertext links, publish on the Web using HTML script or Office file formats, and search both databases residing online and in-house using a Web browser. The software supports other Internet protocols, such as HTTP, FTP, and Microsoft's ActiveX and VBA technologies.

Gates said the company is "moving toward the idea of letting users simply type in what they are looking for" and letting the computer software do the work of retrieving information from corporate databases or the Internet.

The software giant also has its researchers working on ways for its software to become more "intelligent" and actually learn to understand documents and be able to "talk" with people to obtain email messages while on the road and perform other tasks.

"Microsoft is in a perfect position to drive this," Gates said, but "these things won't happen overnight."

New collaborative features have definitely given Office 97 something of a groupware complexion. Features include shared file and discussion options, messaging, calendaring and scheduling, and synchronization of databases to reflect group work. Many of the features were modeled after Lotus Development's Notes groupware package, according to Microsoft officials.

"Notes was sort of diviner product," Fade conceded in an interview after the launch. Yet, he said the convergence of PC and Internet technologies has made the spread of the groupware concept inevitable.

"The PC has become a very powerful communication tool. What you are seeing is a natural response to that" transformation, he said.

Corel is taking a similar direction with its competing software suite. The company signed a deal with Netscape Communications this week to bundle the Net software company's Communicator Web browser and groupware with Corel's WordPerfect Suite 8 and Office Professional 8, due out this spring.

Microsoft has resisted growing enthusiasm for this year's Network Computer technology, opting instead to develop its own NetPC, a stripped-down PC. Yet Gates said that the "the bulk" of the Office 97 suite, which has been criticized by analysts for requiring as much as 32MB of RAM and too much hard drive space, will also be able to be loaded on a server and downloaded onto individual desktops through a network, reducing the software bloat.

Office 97 is comprised of Word document software, Excel spreadsheet, PowerPoint presentation package, and the new Outlook collaborative command center that offers groupware features like messaging, calendaring and scheduling, and document collaboration. The package also includes Access--desktop database software to link the desktop to the Web and allow users access both to in-house files and to Web documents using a Web browser.

The Microsoft software suite is already used by some 55 million people worldwide, and the company said it has already taken about half a million orders for the new version, mostly from retail stores.

Office 97 is available in standard and professional versions. The standard version, which includes Word, Excel, Powerpoint, and Outlook, will cost new users $499; an upgrade for previous Office users will cost $209, and $249 for users of non-Microsoft suites or desktop applications. The Professional version, which adds the Access database and other tools, will cost $599 for new users, $309 for version upgrades, and $349 for non-Microsoft upgrades.