A Peek at Office Upgrade

This very early edition features Web tools, workgroup functions, and speech recognition.

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

Microsoft Office has a jaw-dropping 96 percent of retail suite sales, according to research firm PC Data. But Microsoft isn't done battling for our bucks: 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. (See "Office 2000: Worth the Bother?") 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.

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