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Will Office 97 show Net gains?

Office 97, set to launch next Thursday, will be the first test of Microsoft's efforts to build Net functionality into a mainstream end-user application.

Microsoft (MSFT) is set to launch its latest mega-suite of productivity applications, Office 97, next Thursday. But larger questions loom as the company rumbles toward a new version of the Windows operating system later this year.

Office 97 is built for Windows 95. But since the glitzy Windows 95 launch in August 1995, Microsoft has scrambled to make the Internet a top priority across its product line. Office 97 will be the first test of the company's efforts to build Net functionality, such as Web-publishing capabilities, into a mainstream end-user application.

Office 97 will come in many flavors, with standard, professional, developer, and small business versions all due starting January 16, according to a company representative. First out of the chute next week is the standard edition, which will feature Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook, a new organizer application. The professional edition will add the Access database program to the standard lineup.

Responding to accusations of software bloat, Microsoft is touting Office 97 as a slimmed-down app suite that will deploy easily over company networks. The applications share code for common elements such as toolbars, help and guidance features called 'Wizards,' and art and graphics tools. But installation of the standard edition requires anywhere from 60 to a whopping 167 megabytes of disk space. Average installation is 102 MB, according to Microsoft.

Another crucial step in Microsoft's enduser Internet strategy comes in the third quarter, when Microsoft releases "Memphis," the code name for Windows 97, the version of the Windows operating system with a Web browser built into the user interface. Using their Internet Explorer software, Microsoft will let users decide if they want to browse everything, including their hard drives, through Explorer.

"Right now we're still in decision mode in terms of the default user interface," said Adam Taylor, a Windows product manager. "No matter what we do, you'll be able to choose the UI on the fly."

One big question for Office 97 users is how the various applications will appear and behave in the new user environment.

The unified desktop is a paradigm several companies are shooting for. For example, Apple Computer is integrating OpenDoc and Cyberdog technology into System 7.6 which will give users the ability to browse on- and offline files and add small application "components" to the Macintosh desktop. In addition, Netscape Communications is racing to release its Communicator software that combines a browser, collaboration and communication tools, and other applets within a single desktop environment.

The Memphis OS will also feature a new system architecture that allows the system software to put the hardware into sleep mode and wake up for instant reboot. In addition, the system will support hard drives over 2 gigabytes in size. Microsoft is accomplishing that with a new file system, called FAT-32, which replaces the FAT-16 file system, a moldering leftover from the earliest days of DOS. Instead of shipping as a separate operating system, a FAT-32 converter utility will ship with the FAT-16 default system, giving users the choice of upgrading. Neither of these new capabilities will force any change to application code--Office 97 included--Taylor said.

"Although Office 97 will be coming out first, I don't think there'll be any significant tweaks," said Taylor.