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Putting Office 2000 to the test

After a delayed start, Microsoft will ship 20,000 copies to testers in a broader-than-usual beta program.

The general release is expected a little later than originally thought, but Microsoft is ready to put its Office 2000 desktop application package to the test.

The company today is shipping 20,000 copies to testers in a program that is broader than the usual beta.

Executives said Office 2000 will inaugurate a new component strategy and will, for the first time, include Microsoft's FrontPage Web authoring tool in certain versions of the final product when it ships next year.

The new suite also features the first beta version of Outlook 2000, the latest version of Microsoft's email client software. The new version features enhancements like Office E-Mail, which allows users to compose messages using any Office application and to send the message as HTML.

The beta program is the largest ever for the suite. By contrast, the company sent out only 300 early beta copies of its Office 97.

Analysts said the program's size is at least partly the result of the rough beta start of Office 97, in which the package was criticized by some users for being too cumbersome and not worth an upgrade.

"They had real problems with the beta of Office 97, where the product would practically blow up," when users would install and use it, said Rob Enderle, an analyst with Giga Information Group. "A lot of people lost their jobs on that one. I think they don't want to make mistakes this time. They put a lot of effort into this release."

Office 2000 will debut later than originally planned. Microsoft executives said last week that they expect to ship Office 2000 in the first quarter of next year, months after analysts expected it to hit the shelves. Pricing has yet to be announced.

The company said the suite includes new Web-based features that will let customers use the Internet to collaborate and share information, as well as analyze business data.

Office 2000 incorporates HTML as a file format and Web posting features through a "save-as" dialog box that allows users to post information to the Web.

The inclusion of HTML as a file format brings tighter integration with FrontPage 2000, scheduled for beta testing by the fall. When beta 2 of Office 2000 ships in the fall, company executives said it will be bundled with FrontPage 2000, though FrontPage will still be sold as a separate Web development tool as well.

"The product appears to be much faster and much more Web-friendly," Enderle said. "It makes sense that they would bundle FrontPage with Office because the two products have a lot of affinity now."

Office 2000 also includes a browser-based Office Web Discussions feature that will let users collaborate in discussions inside of a Web page as they read and browse, the company said.

As reported, 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 initially pooh-poohed the idea.

Now the software giant is fully embracing the component strategy, with one notable difference: Office 2000 is not based on Java, as are competitive component suites.

The new architecture has made the product more "lean and mean," according to Enderle. "This is also going to be a cost-saver. A lot of people don't use all of the product. They don't need it. Now they can just use only what they need."

Along with the HTML file format, Office 2000 also will support XML 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.