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Microsoft to demo forms' abilities in next Office

With Office 12, company will try to make it easier for businesses to share forms with customers and partners.

Microsoft is planning its first public demonstration of Office 12 for Friday to show off improved forms capabilities in the next version of its flagship productivity software.

The software maker has talked about its broad goals for the next version of Office, but had yet to talk in detail about the specific features that will be added to the release. Office 12's beta is scheduled for release this fall, and the product is set to go on sale in the second half of next year.

At its three-day partner conference, which starts Friday in Minneapolis, Microsoft will show off one particular feature of Office 12: an enhancement to its InfoPath forms. With Office 12, Microsoft will try to make it easier for businesses to share such forms with their customers and vendors, largely by allowing InfoPath forms to be edited and viewed from within a browser. In its first incarnation with Office 2003, InfoPath forms were closely tied to the Office program itself.

In its demonstration, Microsoft will show an example of a loan application, in which a potential home buyer fills out a form via the Web. A loan processor is notified via e-mail and can work on the loan document from within the e-mail.

Managing corporate documents is one of several areas Microsoft has said it will focus on with Office 12. Other areas include collaboration, individual productivity and finding business information.

The Office demo is taking place as part of a keynote speech from Office executive Chris Capossela that will kick off the event. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is scheduled to speak Sunday at the event, which is expected to attract about 6,500 representatives of Microsoft partners, along with several thousand exhibitors and Microsoft employees.

Ahead of the conference, Microsoft this week discussed its plans for the next version of its customer-relationship management software and announced a server software discount for midsize customers.

Microsoft is also using the partner conference to:

•  Unveil its RTC Toolkit, a set of tools that will allow other software makers to include Microsoft's presence engine--its method for identifying whether people are available and through what mode of communication, such as phone, e-mail and instant messaging, they can best be reached. By hovering their cursor over a presence indicator, customers can see whether someone is available and then right click with the mouse to determine which means to use to contact that person.

•  Announce Nov. 7 as the formal launch date for three products, including the oft-delayed SQL Server 2005 database and Visual Studio 2005 developer tool products. Microsoft said last month that the products would be released in November.

•  Create a new designation for its partners that have specific services and products for small businesses. So-called Small Business Specialists will have to pass tests showing they have knowledge about small business issues in general and about Microsoft's products that target the market.

At last year's partner show, Microsoft told partners it needed them to offer services that were better tailored to a particular industry, such as retailing or manufacturing. Microsoft's top partner executive said the company's efforts at getting more specialization from resellers are still in their early stages.

"I think we are just scratching the surface right now," said Allison Watson, a vice president in Microsoft's partner sales and marketing group. "I believe we are going to be asking our partners to get deeper and work smarter."