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New Office comes in pieces

Microsoft is developing a more flexible version of its desktop application suite, parts of which can be mixed and matched.

Looking to give IT managers more control over which applications get deployed to users, Microsoft (MSFT) is developing a more flexible version of its Office desktop application suite.

Due to begin limited beta testing next quarter, with wider beta testing later in the summer, the new version of the desktop applications suite, called Office 9 internally, will include closer ties to Microsoft's Internet Information Server Web server software and will be tightly integrated with Windows NT 5.0, according to a company spokesperson.

IT managers will be able to install Office as a set of component applications that can be mixed and matched. The new component arrangement will allow users to add features directly from the copy of the suite residing on a network server through a new version of IntelliSense, the suite's intelligent assistant, and add enhancements that enable Office 9 to monitor a user's interaction with the suite.

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

Analysts praise the new component model as a major push by Microsoft to make the suite a stronger platform for developers and a more Internet friendly product.

With the component model, Microsoft "is trying create a better platform for developers," said Eric Brown, an analyst with Forrester Research.

IT managers will also be able to use NT 5.0's Active Directory feature to automate Office upgrades for users. The new version of Office will rely on NT 5.0's IntelliMirror technology to mirror a user's PC setup to a network server, and restore the software in the event of a system crash.. The various components of Office will be distributed using the Windows update feature, also part of NT 5.0, which is due to ship later this year.

Brown said the new component strategy isn't surprising. "It had to be a plan early on because Office has had different pieces early on. They spent a lot of time in Office 97; developers did a lot of component work in the tool bar. But it wasn't component a la cart. It was an internal component feature."

Brown explained that when Office 97 shipped, Microsoft tried to play up its internal components as being a full blown component model. "We, analysts, told them that it wasn't. I could understand why they would want to continue that effort and build a component model for this new release."

Microsoft's competitors have been on the component model band wagon for some time as well. Brown pointed to Lotus Development's eSuite, a Java-based business applets and tools package, released last year, as an example of the true component model suite.

Office 9, as expected, won't use any Java technology. As earlier reported by NEWS.COM, the newest release of Office boosted file format with support for HTML alongside the company's own proprietary format. The decision by the software giant means it will now be easier for Office users to read, edit, and publish documents on their company's intranet or Web site, the company said.

Office 9 also incorporates extensible markup language, or XML, to preserve the Office-specific formatting in the document. XML will allow users to store underlying information and to manipulate graphics they get from the Internet.