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Office 12 to ease lines of communication

Microsoft is putting more emphasis on helping workers collaborate in the next version of the productivity software, an exec says.

SAN FRANCISCO--Recognizing a shift in the way people work, Microsoft is putting more emphasis on collaboration in the next version of Office.

The Redmond, Wash., software giant has gotten some help in that effort from Groove Networks, the Ray Ozzie-led company that Microsoft acquired earlier this year, strategy executive Bill Hilf said at the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo here on Monday.

One of the first steps in working with colleagues is finding out which co-workers are actually available. In that regard, Microsoft plans to expand its current work on corporate instant messaging and add support for Internet telephony.

The ability to handle voice over Internet Protocol technology is "one of the core features (Microsoft is) building into the next version of Office," said Hilf, Microsoft's director of platform technology strategy. The company also plans to continue adding more server-based products to the Office family of products, he said.

Microsoft has said that Office 12, the next version of its flagship productivity software, will ship next year. However, the company has yet to discuss most details about what will go into the software.

The company has said it plans to significantly expand its use of Extensible Markup Language, or XML, as a means of exchanging data.

One of the reasons that Microsoft continues to eye new server products, Hilf said, is the fact that many companies use Office for far more than the kind of general productivity tasks originally envisioned for the product.

"I can't tell you how many shops I go to that use Excel for everything--accounting, payroll," Hilf said.

He declined to say whether an Excel server would be among the new software added.

To get a good understanding of where Microsoft is headed with Office, Hilf suggested taking a look at Microsoft Office Communicator 2005, an instant messaging add-on to Office that is in beta testing.

The desktop program, which connects to Microsoft's Live Communications Server software, helps people get a variety of information about how best to communicate with co-workers. For example, out-of-office messages pop up automatically, as does a user's IM presence information. If companies integrate the software with their traditional or Internet telephony gear, workers can also start phone calls through their PC and redirect incoming calls when they are going to be away from their desk.

The final version of Office Communicator 2005 is due for release by the end of June. Pricing and other details have yet to be announced.