Microsoft reveals the next generation Office family

Microsoft Word, Excel and Outlook will get makeovers this fall when the software giant releases latest lineup of its office suites, which will include an enterprise edition and several new server options.

What has been dubbed Office 12 will be known as Microsoft Office 2007, the company said last week, when the finished product begins shipping. An initial beta of the product suite was released last November, and a second beta is planned for the spring.

According to Mike Bulmer, a product manager for Microsoft Office Systems at Microsoft Canada, Office 2007 has radically changed from previous versions.

“If you think about where Microsoft Office came from, with its roots being in personal productivity, there’s a lot of great stuff in Office 2007 that go head on and tackle that personal productivity challenge,” he said.

Users will notice a new interface, Bulmer added, which includes a tab structure running across applications like Word, Excel and PowerPoint.

“When you click on a tab like Insert, everything you want to insert into a document is all there in the same place,” he explained. “Everything you need to format a document is now in one tab, one ribbon. It makes it much easier for end users to get better results faster.”

The biggest change for retailers will be the replacement of the Student and Teacher edition with a US$149 Home and Student edition that can now be used by all home users. Microsoft is removing the Outlook e-mail and calendar program from that edition and instead including its OneNote note-taking application. Office Small Business and Office Professional will continue to be available through the retail channel.

For volume license users, the software maker will offer two new editions of the suite. Although pricing has not been released for these high-end versions, Bulmer points out that with the new features and functionalities, resellers should expect different price points.

With Microsoft Office Professional Plus, the standard Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook applications will be augmented with Access and Publisher – products that come with the Professional edition – along with the Office Communicator instant messaging program, InfoPath form-creation software, and server-based content management and forms management capabilities.

The second new installment in the Office lineup is Microsoft Office Enterprise 2007. In addition to all the applications in Professional Plus, it will include OneNote and Groove, the collaboration program Microsoft acquired last year.

“Groove allows users to do ad-hoc real time collaboration,” said Bulmer, enabling a team to work together regardless of location or network connection.

On the server end of the spectrum, Microsoft has opted to combine several server offerings and capabilities into the Office SharePoint Portal Server 2007, allowing it to handle Office tasks like forms management, spreadsheet hosting and content rights management. “The SharePoint Portal is the backend to Microsoft Office 2007,” said Bulmer. “It empowers a lot of the collaboration, allowing users to post documents, check-out documents, enable version control and have workflow built right in.”

Other new Office-labeled servers will include a Forms server, which integrates with InfoPath to ease distribution and management of electronic forms, a Project Portfolio server to complement Microsoft Project Server and an Office Groove server to provide centralized management, data relay and integration capabilities.

For system builders and ISVs, Bulmer said the architecture of the new Office programs provides greater opportunity for customization. “An ISV can make an application that integrates with Office on the front end and create a customized tab,” he said. “It allows a user to incorporate it into their daily operations without having to leave the application.”

Bulmer added that many partners who have domain expertise in fields like enterprise content management (ECM) can provide added value to their customers through the new tools that come with Microsoft Office 2007, like ECM forms, business intelligence and enterprise project management applications.

Warren Shiau, a lead IT analyst at The Strategic Counsel, said the way Microsoft developed its new products will enable the channel to be more cost effective when customizing applications. “The architecture on which the products are built lend themselves to having to do much less infrastructure by the channel,” said Shiau. “Whatever customization or application development they do is going to be at a higher rate of return or better margin.”

When it comes to Microsoft’s strategy, Shiau said, Office 2007 has so many attractive features that it could pull the upcoming Windows Vista operating system along with it. “Having a desktop suite pull adoption of a desktop operating system hasn’t been seen in a long time,” he added.

Users will also getting more for their money in the new Office, added Shiau. But the additional content that is layered into the different editions, he said, isn’t due to Microsoft’s generosity.

“It’s mostly caused by competitive pressure, even though we haven’t seen a tidal wave of open source adoption or open source eating away at their accounts. When they make adjustments to their product line like this, its in response to a threat from open source.”

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