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Exclusive: a sneak peek at next Office upgrade

Yet more bells and whistles for MS bloatware

Microsoft may have won the suite wars by market share, but the feature fights continue.

Microsoft Office (http://www.microsoft.com/office/) enjoys total domination in terms of retail suite sales.

But Microsoft hasn’t given up battling for our hard-earned cash. Its next salvo, code-named Office 10, focuses on ease of use, Web features, and workgroup tools - plus built-in speech recognition. It's due sometime around the summer of 2001.

Does this sound familiar? It should. When Office 2000 shipped in 1999, it also concentrated on usability, the Web, and workgroups. Competitors Corel WordPerfect and Lotus SmartSuite have long offered voice recognition.

Judging from the beta version of Office 10 we tested, this next version will nudge the suite a bit further in many respects.

But like any early beta release, this one is, at best, a first draft. Some planned features are still missing; others (such as voice recognition) are too raw to judge properly.

Publisher and PhotoDraw are missing altogether, and even the upgrade's name isn't set yet. Until we hear more about the final version - especially how much it costs and how briskly it performs - all we can say is that this is a promising preview with a few rough spots.

The same, only simpler?

With roots dating back to the 1980s, Office and its core components - Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, Access, and Front Page - are as mature as software gets.

So it's no shock that most of this upgrade's improvements are nips and tucks to existing features, not radical innovations.

It's also no shock that Microsoft will apparently sidestep compatibility glitches by keeping intact almost all of Office 2000's file formats. The one partial exception: access 10 offers an optional new file format designed to speed up large databases.

Many of the major changes are meant to make existing features simpler and less trouble-prone. For example, Word's new Drawing Canvas keeps complex graphics creations from reformatting unexpectedly.

Other innovations are Web-centric, including Outlook's integration with Microsoft's Hotmail and MSN Messenger services. And some offer a bit of both, such as Excel's revised Web Query feature, which makes it much easier to snag data from the Web and refresh it on the fly.

Office 10: some useful tweaks

Two nifty interface tweaks - the Task Pane and Smart Tags - offer instant access to options and information that's otherwise buried in menus and dialogs.

Seemingly inspired by features in WordPerfect and Microsoft's own Internet Explorer, the Task Pane appears alongside documents to speed searching, formatting, and other jobs.

It also makes cutting and pasting much simpler by displaying all the elements that are stored in the Clipboard (which now handles 24 items, up from 12 in Office 2000).

Smart Tags are context-sensitive icons that show up in documents. For example, when you paste a formula in Excel, a Smart Tag appears next to the cell; click it, and a menu provides formatting options. Otherwise, you would have to choose Paste Special from the Edit menu.

Smart Tags also let you disable AutoCorrect features such as automatic bulleted lists - permanently or as needed.

Neither Task Panes nor Smart Tags are exactly revolutionary, but both should speed work for both suite neophytes and veterans. And unlike cartoon-character help and truncated menus, they're not likely to strike anybody as a truly bad idea.

Also new in Office 10 are several features designed to let Office recover more gracefully from application crashes and other technical snafus. It offers better document recovery than in the past.

The beta was shaky enough that we encountered this feature often, and it really worked. (Let's hope Microsoft puts equal effort into assuring that users of the final version rarely see it.)

Enhanced talk and teamwork

Office 10's new built-in speech recognition may be its flashiest addition, though SmartSuite and WordPerfect added similar features long ago.

Word, Excel, and other apps now offer dictation and voice navigation features. In our informal tests, recognition was erratic at first but improved once we trained the system.

It's too early to rate this feature, though. Microsoft concedes that its beta incarnation is flaky, and it came with so little documentation that it's tough to tell how it stacks up against third-party packages such as IBM's ViaVoice and Lernout & Hauspie's Dragon NaturallySpeaking.

Multiple users can now edit a file simultaneously in Word, and changes are displayed in page margins as callouts.

On the other hand, the new collaborative features seem almost ready for prime time. In fact, Word's revamped tools for wrangling revisions might alone justify the upgrade if you do tag-team editing of documents.

Multiple users can now edit a file simultaneously, and changes are displayed in page margins as callouts (so they don't disturb the page layout).

One user can compare all edits, then merge them into a final version. Some of these features are also present in other Office applications.

Office 10's workgroup Web features are also major advances on their so-so Office 2000 predecessors. You can quickly set up a slick site with message boards, scheduling tools, surveys, and document folders, and customise it with a few clicks. FrontPage and a new application called Microsoft Designer allow more ambitious customisation.

But there's still lots of room for improvement.

For instance, you can use the Web feature to set up a workgroup site, but its contact, event, and task lists offer only rudimentary integration with Outlook.

You must export items to Outlook one at a time, and you can't import them at all. The subscriptions feature, which alerts you via e-mail to changes at your Web site, still seems unfinished. When it tells you about new documents, it says who added them, and when, but not the file name.

Even if Microsoft hits its timetable and ships Office 10 in mid-2001, it will face some freshly minted rivals. Lotus plans to release a SmartSuite upgrade by the end of 2000; Corel has a new version of WordPerfect Office in the works for the first half of 2001.

And after several delays, Sun Microsystems now aims to launch StarPortal - its free, Web-based suite - by the end of 2000. Stay tuned for details on these suite underdogs - and for further reports on Office 10.


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