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Microsoft trickles out Office plans

The software giant's product managers offer an extra peek at features planned for version 9x of the application suite.

Microsoft product managers yesterday offered an additional peek at features planned for Office 9x, an update of the company's desktop application suite, now slated to ship by year's end.

The update, now in limited beta testing, will build heavily on Web and network technology, for both creating documents and distributing Office applications, Microsoft managers said.

The new version of Office is a radical departure from previous releases. Microsoft will recast Office as a series of application components, including Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, and Outlook, which can be distributed and managed from a central server. That's a major shift from the company's previous "no-component" stance.

When Lotus Development and Corel first introduced plans to build componentized versions of their business application suites, Microsoft pooh-poohed the idea.

Now the software giant is fully embracing the component strategy, with one notable difference: Office 9x is not based on Java, as are competitive component suites.

Office 9x will include a slew of Web-based enhancements for writing HTML documents. The suite will also support XML (extensible markup language) as a way to define objects, such as charts and revision marks, Microsoft said.

The suite will allow Web-based document collaboration. Now that HTML has been elevated to the standard file format in the suite, users will be able to publish documents to the Web, manage Web-based documents, and enable real-time document collaboration.

Through server-based tools, Office users will also be able to access reporting, analysis, and tracking applications through a Web browser interface.

As previously reported, IT managers will be able to install Office as a set of component applications that can be mixed and matched. The suite can also be run directly from a server installation.

The new component arrangement will allow users to add features directly from the copy of the suite residing on a network server through an, as of yet, "unnamed technology," and add enhancements that let Office 9x monitor a user's interaction with the suite, a Microsoft manager said.

The new suite will also allow users to automatically download commonly used functions, if allowed by the IT department.

Other features are targeted for ease of use. For instance, Web page-based content can be copied and pasted, since the clipboard, the temporary memory holding pen for copied data, will recognize HTML.

Microsoft claims that Office will also be self-repairing, in the sense that the application will automatically replace missing or corrupted files that it needs in order to run.

While the new Web features are novel to Office and to Microsoft, Lotus already has announced similar plans. Lotus last month announced SmartSuite Millennium Edition, which will also support HTML and XML. The suite is due to ship in June.

Microsoft has not announced pricing plans for Office 9x.