Roughly two years after I first previewed Microsoft Office 10 Beta 1, which became Office XP, we're back again with a new Office version, set to ship in mid-2003. The new Office, currently known only as Office 11, adds a new user interface scheme based on the visual styles in Windows XP and a host of new features, while dropping the subscription software scheme that Microsoft tested in the previous version. Office 11 will also include new applications, such as XDocs and OneNote, though some of these new features aren't present in the first beta.

Office 11 will not install on Windows 95, 98, 98 SE, Millennium Edition (Me) or NT 4.0, a source of controversy in some circles. Frankly, I don't see a problem: Anyone still running a legacy OS like Windows 98 isn't going to be investing in the latest and greatest office productivity suite. And from a software development standpoint, not having to support older technology ensures that Office 11 will be more stable and reliable. Sounds good to me.

In daily use, Office 11 is extremely similar to Office XP, once you get over the odd and colored user interface, which changes to match the limited color schemes in Windows XP. I really don't like this interface, and can't imagine why it even exists. Most users will see the blue version (Figure), but if you enable the Olive Green (Figure) or Silver (Figure) color scheme in Windows XP, Office 11 will change to match; likewise, users who enabled the Classic view style will see a gray look (Figure) which is, ironically, the most attractive of the bunch. It's the not the colors that stink, however, it's the bizarre tubular user interface elements. Toolbars, the tops of task panes, and other UI elements in Office 11 aren't flat, as they are in Office XP, and they don't resemble Windows XP toolbars, which is a shame. Instead, they're ... they're weird looking, like gun barrels or pipes. They're ugly.

OK, complaining about the Office 11 UI may seem trivial, but like many users, I live in Office--especially Outlook and Word--all day long, and this new UI gets in the way. It's gaudy, and it's ugly, and I wish I could turn it off. A better solution would have been to use the UI color changing scheme from Windows Media Player 9, which works well, offers far more color choices, and isn't intrusive. Ah well.

Why Office 11

Microsoft tells me that there are four main design goals for Office 11: Security, reliability, mobility (including Tablet PC and Pocket PC solutions), and ease of use. The challenges, however, are legion. Information workers--what Microsoft used to call knowledge workers--are suffering from information fatigue, with too much email, trouble finding data, and then trouble finding the important information when they can find the data. Today, information is stored in disconnected islands of data, making it difficult to collect and connect. And while a future Windows .NET advance called WinFS (Windows Future Storage) should solve the data isolation problem, Office 11 will provide some interesting interim steps toward connecting previously separated data stores.

"Our customers are people who use a computer to do work," Office 11 Product Manager Simon Marks told me recently. "But information workers are in broader categories--they could be nurses doing their rounds, or engineers on a factory floor. Whoever they are, they still need access to information, but not in a classic way. They're not sitting at a desk, but are working in a mobile environment. And they don't think in the classic sense about a word processor, but rather think about specific tasks, such as patient records. These people are a key focus of the wave 11 product."

Also, most Office 11 applications support the Tablet PC and Windows XP Tablet PC Edition natively. In Office XP, an add-on pack was required for this functionality.

XML, Office 11 and SmartDocs

One of the major technological changes Microsoft is touting in this release is the integration of Office 11 with the eXtensible Markup Language (XML), an open standard for interoperable data. Previous to Office 11, Microsoft had integrated XML support into numerous server products and its operating systems, and its addition to Office 11 completes the circle, so to speak. Now, users can save Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, or Access databases in XML, making it easier to share this data with others. And businesses can create XML schemas that make their documents self-describing. By default, Office 11 applications store data in their native formats, but you can change that to XML on the fly or set it as the default document format if you'd like (Figure).

To set the record straight, Office XP did have limited XML support, but the technology is far more integrated in this release. For example, if you save a Word 2002 (XP) document in XML format, it could generate several files. But in Word 11, the resulting output is a single, well-formed XML file that preserves all of the formatting you used in the document. This makes it easier to share this data with heterogeneous systems.

So why would you want to do such a thing? Is there any benefit to using XML over Office's native data formats? For an individual, no, there's no real benefit, and if anything, the resulting files will often be much bigger than their native Office document equivalents. But like many of the features in Office 11, support for XML was added for the benefit of big companies, which will likely be using XML-based services and back-end data stores that work with XML. In such cases, using XML on the desktop will make it easier to move data between a company's many systems. And this, Microsoft says, was the goal behind its addition of XML documents in Office 11.

Office 11 documents that are stored in XML format can be round-tripped, which means that they can be edited outside of Office and then returned to, say, Word and edited again without losing any content. Furthermore, Office 11 XML documents are 100 percent compatible with the entire Office feature set: If you can do it with a native Office document, you can do it with XML. And finally, it's possible to use the same document in different Office applications to get new types of views on the same data. For example, you might display a list of information in a Word chart, and then view that same data as an interactive chart in Excel.

Programmatically, Office 11 now supports SmartDocs, which are applications that use XML in Office documents to provide new user interfaces directly in the Office 11 applications, via a special task pane. Created by IT departments and developers using a programming language such as Visual Basic .NET or C#, SmartDocs use what would normally be dead space in Word and other Office applications to supply end users with new, company-specific functionality. For example, a developer might create a new spreadsheet template that includes special tags, binding specific fields in the spreadsheet to an XML schema. Then, when the end user fills in data to that spreadsheet, it can be exported as standard XML and could be used in other Office 11 applications, or by any service or server that speaks XML. In Word, perhaps, the data could be used to fill in a corporate report, or whatever. The possibilities are endless.

Microsoft Outlook 11

With this Office version's focus on communication and collaboration features, it's no wonder that Outlook 11 is the most significantly improved product in the suite. Outlook 11 includes a new columnar user interface that gives precedence to the currently selected email (Figure). Microsoft says this new view style, which essentially moves the preview pane from the lower right corner of the display to the entire right side of the display, provides 40 percent more viewing area than the previous scheme. It's the one Outlook 11 feature I'm hooked on, frankly, and its painful to go back to older versions. This new view style often lets me read an entire email message without scrolling, a huge productivity gain.

The rest of Outlook's UI has been significantly changed as well, though not always for the best. In the new three column view, the left-most pane contains views that are relevant to the currently selected Outlook module (Mail, Calendar, Contacts, and so forth). So if you have Mail selected, you'll see a list of Favorite folders (folders you've accessed the most often) and then a list of all mail folders. In Calendar view, the current month and the next month are thumbnailed at the top, followed by a list of your calendars (Figure). Regardless of which module is open, the bottom of that column displays the Outlook 11 Button Bar, providing quick access to each of Outlook's modules. You can configure this Button Bar (Figure) just as you could the Outlook Bar in previous Outlook versions.

The center column is also view specific. If you're in Mail, for example, and select an email folder, the center column fills with a view of that folder. Email folder views have been significantly updated in this release, and I really enjoy the new views. By default, your Inbox is divided into a date arrangement, with separate sections for Today, Yesterday, and so forth. Sent items, meanwhile, displays a similar grouped view, but minus the preview pane (Figure). It's attractive and easy to use. And naturally, each view can be modified to your heart's content.

What I don't like is that many of the common keystrokes I used to use in Outlook 2000 and XP are gone, because Microsoft has significantly changed the menu structure in Outlook 11. Here are two examples. I don't like the built-in Find tool, so I used Advanced Find instead. In previous Outlook versions, I could tap ALT+T+D to access Advanced Find. But because Advanced Find is now buried in a new Find sub-menu, I can't do that. I have to use the mouse. Likewise, the once easily access View arrangement styles have also been moved to a sub-menu within a sub-menu; previously, you could simply access View then Arrange By to reach these arrangements. Now they're buried in View, Arrange By, Current View. Ugh. It takes me much longer to perform these common operations in Office 11, and that makes me less productive.

Outlook won't display HTML content by default (Figure), and it's about time. You can tap an area of the message to unlock blocked content if you'd like. Outlook 11 also includes a concept called Search Folders, which lets you store the results of queries. It includes examples, such as Large Messages and For Follow Up, and you can create your own. I haven't spent much time experimenting with this feature yet, but will do so by Beta 2.

I've noticed a couple of bugs in Outlook 11, but to be fair, I'm sure they'll be fixed. For some reason, you can select an email message in the Inbox, hit CTRL+R to reply, and nothing happens. I've noticed that the Reply, Reply To All, and Forward buttons on the Outlook toolbar aren't always active when you select a message. But if you select it again, they light up, and the key combinations work again. Also, some key combinations have unintended results occasionally. Sometimes, when I use the aforementioned CTRL+R combination, the Inbox view jumps to the last email in the list, and doesn't reply to the current message. It doesn't happen every time, so I'm not sure what causes this issue. Finally, the previously useful scheme of display a tray notification icon when you receive mail has been replaced by a horribly broken Outlook icon (Figure) that just sits in your tray whether you've got new email or not. It looks like this is supposed to be configurable, but I never got it working correctly on several tested systems, so I have no visual reminder about when new email arrives. Again, it's irritating, but I'm sure it will be fixed.

I wish Microsoft would adopt Internet calendaring standards so I could share Outlook calendars with Mozilla Calendar and Apple iCal, and subscribe to calendars created in other applications. This is a major feature limitation.

Overall, Outlook 11 is the most dramatically improved application in Office 11, and a great upgrade. I live in Outlook daily, and the new user interface really makes a difference. There are problems, as I noted, but hopefully many of these issues will be addressed later in the beta.

Microsoft Word 11

Microsoft Word 11 (Figure) doesn't appear to have been significantly updated in this beta release. There is the previously mentioned XML output capability, of course. Word 11 does include a new Reading Layout view that seems to be designed to compete with applications such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. In Reading Layout (Figure), Word displays your document in a one- or two-page read-only view that lets you perform view changes that won't affect the underlying document. For example, you can change the font size for easier reading. When you switch out of Reading Layout, the fonts return to normal. And like Acrobat Reader, Reading Layout supplies optional page thumbnails or a document map for easier navigation.

One other new feature is notable. In Word 11, you can optionally mark regions in a document to be read-only, making it possible to supply employees with forms in which only certain portions can be filled out. Microsoft gave me some interesting examples of where this feature might be useful. "The idea is that you might have a contract or legal boilerplate part of document that can't be changed, such as an SEC filing or whatever," Marks told me. "Or maybe a real estate agent working with contracts, where parts of the document simply can't be changed. They could click through and fill in the appropriate parts." Locked documents can be password protected, Marks said.

In daily use, I've noticed a major selection bug in Word 11 that occurs when you select an area of text that extends beyond the current view area; instead of selecting the area, it starts selecting from the end of the selection forward once you begin to scroll.

Microsoft Excel 11

Microsoft Excel 11 (Figure) appears to have been updated even less than Word. Again, we have the XML enhancements. Improved smart tags can now be associated with actions in specific worksheet cells. Microsoft's example involves a Stock Quote smart tag: Perhaps you associate this smart tag with a range of cells that include stock symbols. When you select those cells and click the smart tag, the cells are updated with the current stock prices. This basic functionality was actually available in Excel 2002; this difference with this release is that you can limit the smart tag links to specific cells.

Microsoft PowerPoint 11

Microsoft PowerPoint 11 (Figure) has been updated to include a distributable viewer application, so that presentations created with this application can be viewed by people without PowerPoint. Further aiding distribution is a new Package to CD feature, which lets PowerPoint users create an auto-run CD of one or more of their presentations on disk; this feature replaces the Pack and Go functionality in PowerPoint 2002.

PowerPoint 11 is now integrated with Windows Media Player, allowing you to create multimedia presentations that incorporate full screen video playback or streaming audio or video. The application also includes smart tags previously available only in Word and Excel, most of which are related to automatic formatting functionality.

Microsoft Access 11

Microsoft Access 11 (Figure) includes the previously discussed XML features, new field-level smart tags including AutoCorrect, context-sensitive help for building SQL queries, a few developer-oriented niceties, and a new database backup feature, which works directly from the Access UI. Otherwise, it appears to be very similar to the previous version.

I tried to develop an MSDE-based (SQL Server, rather than Jet) Access project in Office 11, but it doesn't appear that MSDE is installed with this release by default. After downloading the latest MSDE version from the MSDN Web site, however, I was able to create MSDE-based databases with Access 11.

Microsoft FrontPage 11

I spend a lot of time developing Web sites in FrontPage, and I was looking for ward to FrontPage 11. I wasn't disappointed: Microsoft FrontPage 11 (Figure) includes a host of new functionality, much of which makes this oft-derided tool more suitable for professional Web developers. In fact, the text editor in FrontPage 11 now works more like than in Visual Studio .NET than it does previous FrontPage versions; you can select blocks of code and adjust formatting on the fly, for example, a feat that was beyond the text editor in FrontPage 2002.

FrontPage 11 supports HTML and CSS, of course, but it also supports advanced coding environments like Active Server Pages (ASP) and Active Server Pages .NET (ASP .NET), and various scripting languages, like JScript and VBScript. A new Split Pane view lets you view a WYSIWYG Design Pane and Code pane simultaneously (Figure), which is nice. But I spend all of my time in Code view, and the FrontPage 11 code editor has stopped my pining for something more professional. The editor has been significantly enhanced with a QuickTag toolbar, code IntelliSense (for HTML, CSS, XSL, JScript and ASP .NET), line numbers, auto-indent, matching tags, and numerous other niceties. And finally, FrontPage supports external editors. So if you want to edit an image file in, say, PhotoShop, it's built-in. Good stuff.

FrontPage 11 also makes it easy to work with various browsers for testing purposes. I've got IE 6, Mozilla 1.2.1 and the Opera 7 beta loaded on my machine, and FrontPage 11 includes quick links to all of these browsers via a drop-down list on the Preview toolbar button (Figure). You can also edit the browser list, and select from various resolution settings. Again, simply wonderful.

If you do choose to use Design View, you can now turn on rulers and a layout grid for object positioning, work with Macromedia Flash content, and utilize DHTML layers. FrontPage 11 also includes numerous new and improved themes, though I'm not a big fan of the cookie cutter stuff.

For publishing purposes, FrontPage 11 supports FTP sites, WebDAV servers, and SharePoint Team Services sites in addition to vanilla IIS servers with FrontPage Extensions.

But the biggest single improvement in FrontPage 11 has to be its support of clean HTML. In previous versions, using Design View would create the most horrendous looking HTML code available anywhere, and FrontPage was iffy about supporting the formatting of text code you created manually. That's all in the past. FrontPage 11 creates clean code from Design View, whether its with a new document or during editing of a document you created from scratch in code view. And it now supports simple HTML tables, rather than Word-style tables, by default. If you're a masochist, you can switch back. FrontPage 11 even supports various HTML cleanup options. For example, you can clean up empty tags, various comments and attributes, and HTML whitespace. Halleluiah.

I love using FrontPage 11 and I will never switch back to previous versions. Never, never, never.

Microsoft Publisher 11

Like FrontPage, Microsoft Publisher 11 (Figure) has been significantly upgraded with this release. Publisher 11 includes many Web site creation-related improvements, including various ways in which you can create new Web sites or convert existing print publication to Web sites. In Publisher 11, you can have multiple master pages, up from just one (or two in a two-page master spread) in Publisher 2002. Indeed, this feature, like Publisher's improved support for commercial printing belies the application's undeserved reputation in certain circles as being a low-end product that can't compete with the big boys.

I haven't yet spent a lot of time in Publisher 11, but I should have more information about this product by the Beta 2 release.

Microsoft OneNote 11

At COMDEX Fall 2002 in mid-November 2002, Microsoft revealed that it will ship a new application, OneNote (code-named "Scribbler"), with various Office 11 suite versions and as a standalone product. Microsoft OneNote 11 (Figure) isn't available in the Beta 1 release of Office 11, so I'll have to wait until Beta 2 to give it a thorough run-through. But what I saw during two hour-long previews the week of COMDEX was very exciting. This is an application that will have a major impact on the way I work in the future.

At its simplest level, OneNote is a note-taking application. While you might initially scoff at such a notion--people have been taking notes in Microsoft Word, various text editors, and even on legal pads for years, after all--don't be too hasty. The real innovation in OneNote is its ability to capture, organize, and share notes, all from a single location. Think of it this way. Today, most people take notes for a reason, and that reason generally results in the start of a formal document. For example, in my job as a technology reporter, I spend much of my time on the phone and in meeting rooms, taking notes as I speak with representatives at Microsoft and other companies. The reason I take these notes, of course, is for reference. Later, I'll use these notes to construct reviews, such as this one, or get quotes for articles I'm writing.

The reason Microsoft Word isn't a great note-taking application is that Word creates documents, not notes, and these documents can be spread out wherever on your hard drive or network. Word was designed solely to capture typewritten text, and is unsuitable for adding handwritten drawings or other contextual notes. Writing on a pad of paper is equally problematic: There, you have a more free-form writing capability--that is, you can set the pen down anywhere on the paper--but you can't edit previously written notes or easily move these documents to the PC. So instead, people that take notes via paper often end up transcribing those notes into the PC. In other words, they take the notes twice.

OneNote was designed to address these issues. Chris Pratley, the Product Manager for Microsoft OneNote, told me at COMDEX that people all have different ways of taking and managing notes, so OneNote was designed to accommodate any style. "You can take notes via typing, handwriting, drawing, or even audio," Pratley told me, "and OneNote links it all together."

The OneNote user interface resembles a tabbed notebook, where each tab along the top of the application represents a notebook and, consequently, a file on the disk. But there is no concept of file saving or loading in OneNote, Pratley said. "It's just like a notebook, of course you save it. It's saved automatically," he said. "When you restart the application, you automatically go back to where you were, just as you would with a real notebook." And like a real notebook, each OneNote notebook can be divided into pages, and even sub-pages. These groups are denoted by tabs that run down the right side of the UI.

The following interactive image describes some of the key OneNote features in detail.

What sets OneNote apart from Word or other electronic note-taking schemes is that the writing surface is arbitrary, like a real notebook: You set the cursor down at any area on the surface, and start typing. You're not bound to Word's strict formatting. But OneNote does include some cool formatting tools, such as the ability to automatically indent lists based on where you type. And you can drag and drop regions of note within the surface; this activity will cause lists to auto-format, where appropriate, based on where dragged text is dropped.

A cool feature in OneNote lets you create audio notes using a Windows Media Audio (WMA) stream through a microphone, which you might use to record an interview. Every time you take a note, with the keyboard or, perhaps, stylus on a Tablet PC, the application makes a timestamp, tying that note to the precise moment in the recording at which it occurred. You can then click a speaker smart tag next to that particular note and hear the audio recording that occurred at precisely that time. That's an amazing bit of functionality.

There's so much more, but I'll wait until the Beta 2 release and some hands-on time before delving further. Suffice to say that this is one application that I'm eager to use.

XDocs

In October, Microsoft introduced another new member of the Microsoft Office family, called XDocs. Microsoft XDocs is the code-name for a new application or service that will work inside other Office applications--Microsoft isn't sure yet--that will bring XML Web services technologies to the client. Building off the investment companies have made with XML on back-end systems, XDocs provides a client-side interface for accessing information. Previously, companies might have used Web pages for this purpose, but Web pages have two huge limitations: First, from a UI perspective, Web pages aren't very rich environments, and don't support many Office features that users have come to expect, such as spelling and grammar checking, WYSIWYG drag-and-drop functionality and conditional formatting. Secondly, Web pages aren't persistent, and are ineffectual for entering huge amounts of data that might need to be entered over time.

To address these and other limitations, XDocs will present the user with a familiar Office application interface, complete with all of the niceties found in other Office applications. XDocs supports three modes. In Design Mode, developers and technical users can create forms-based interfaces that interact with XML back-end systems. In Editing mode, an end user will access an XDocs form, and edit existing back-end data. And in View mode, an end user can query back-end data, perhaps presenting it in different, visually attractive ways.

The beauty of XDocs is that it consolidates heterogeneous data sources together into a single interface, which cuts down on training and support costs. From a developmental standpoint, those creating XDocs forms can build in client-side data validation, exception handling, and other advanced features, further minimizing costs and data entry errors. Scott Fisher, a Program Manager with the Office team, told me that XDocs is a direct result of customer feedback. "Customers need this technology," he said. "Consider the Education segment: Higher education wants to simplify the application process. You can't use a Web form to fill out a medical student application, because it's a 70 hour process. You can't do it in a browser, it's not possible. But XDocs works offline. You can fill out the form over time, and submit it when it's done. We've gotten a very positive reaction from users ... Any industry with stringent requirements for data will want XDocs. The insurance industry will use it for doctor referrals."

Like OneNote, XDocs isn't available in Office 11 Beta 1, so I'll wait for the Beta 2 release to examine this technology.

Other Office 11 applications and tools

In addition to the main Office 11 and Office 11 family applications offered in the Beta 1 release, Microsoft is including a number of other applications and tools. A new Microsoft Picture Library application (Figure) offers an interesting array of imaging-related functionality, including resizing, cropping, red-eye removal, rotating, and so forth, though I'd prefer to see these features added to the underlying operating system. Office Document Imaging, first shipped in Office XP, has been significantly updated with Optical Character Recognition (OCR) functionality that separates text and graphics so they can be repurposed independently.

Most Office 11 applications include a new Research task pane and Research toolbar button that can search local and remote resources for information. For example, this feature can be tied to dictionaries and thesauruses, remote data stores, or any other source that can be queried via a Web service. Office 11 also supports Internet faxing.

What's next?

Microsoft representatives told me to expect Office 11 Beta 2 in the February-March 2003 timeframe, and the final release is expected around mid-2003. Even at this early stage, however, Office 11 appears to be a compelling upgrade, especially for the critical enterprise market that Microsoft is targeting. No doubt I'll have more to say about this exciting product suite in the coming months.