Office -- What's Next?

Microsoft is being tight-lipped about the feature set for the next version of Office.

Expect that to change shortly as Microsoft aims to keep Licensing 6.0 Software Assurance customers by enticing them with the bells and whistles of the next version. In the meantime, Microsoft's moves in products and technologies adjacent to Office point to the future direction of the product.

Here are 12 things to expect in "Office 12."

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A 2006 delivery date

There's not much detail beyond that yet. Some published reports have Microsoft trying to time the release of the Windows "Longhorn" client and "Office 12," the code-name for the next version. Microsoft also says it will release the next version of Exchange, code-named "Exchange 12" or "E12," in 2006 and close to the release of Office 12.

Anti-virus integration

The biggest change to e-mail since the Office 2003/Outlook 2003 debut is Microsoft's public declaration that it will produce a consumer-oriented anti-virus engine by the end of 2005. Integration with that anti-virus engine for small and medium-sized businesses, and with the recently acquired Sybari Antigen anti-virus product for enterprises, is likely to be a major selling point of the next Outlook.

Further anti-spam protection

Anti-spam improvements in Outlook and Exchange were a key improvement in Office 2003. The changes to Intelligent Message Filtering last year showed Microsoft is still busy in this area.

Office search functionality

The acquisition of the Lookout search tool and the creation of the MSN Search toolbar are evidence that Microsoft isn't standing by while Google beta tests its Google Desktop Search beta. Tight integration of new search capabilities with Office, as well as replacement of the subpart native search in Outlook may be on tap.

Research improvements

The Office 2003 generation of products featured a decent Research task pane with some handy tools, including dictionaries, thesauruses and encyclopedias. Let's keep our fingers crossed for further refinements on this functionality that makes even more useful information available for free (or for the cost of Word, to be more precise).

Longhorn integration

What exactly the integration will be remains a big question mark. Because Longhorn features aren't fleshed out much beyond major development pillars, it's hard to predict how the two products will leverage one another.

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Developer improvements

Developers should see a bunch of goodies around the Office 12 release. They're already getting an interim refresh of Office development capabilities with the Visual Studio 2005 Tools for Office this summer. Yet another version of Visual Studio is planned for the Longhorn release, around the same time Office 12 would come out.

Piggybacking on Exchange 12

If the anti-spam and anti-virus improvements materialize, and if Outlook/Exchange 2003 is any guide, the newest versions of both Exchange and Outlook will have to be used together to get the biggest benefit.

Collaboration improvements

With the Exchange 12 roadmap revealed, Microsoft looks like it's moving away from earlier ambitions to turn the Exchange Server into a collaboration platform similar to Lotus Domino. But Microsoft hasn't abandoned its collaboration dreams, the company has just shifted its attention to the SharePoint technologies. A new version of Office is a new opportunity for better collaboration integration with Windows SharePoint Services and Microsoft SharePoint Portal Server.

Integration with new versions of second-tier servers

With the October 2003 launch of the Office 2003 System, Microsoft expanded the definition of Office considerably. Instead of just an array of desktop productivity suites, Office became the umbrella for a pantheon of Microsoft's lesser servers. In addition to SharePoint Portal Server, there's also Microsoft Project Server and Live Communications Server, and the Live Meeting service.

Integration with Istanbul

With the overhauled Instant Messaging client "Istanbul" for Live Communications Server 2005 coming this year, Microsoft will have a rich new collaboration tool, which will be integrated into Microsoft's many Office productivity products. Istanbul is designed to allow for chats, initiate phone calls and route incoming calls.

More XML support without going all the way

This has been a recurring theme in Office releases since the .NET initiative surfaced in 2000. With each release, Microsoft finds new ways to balance its desire to increase XML support without making document formats, especially Word, compatible with competitive Office suites and thus threatening Microsoft's massive market share lead.

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