With its lucrative Office suite in decline, Microsoft is feeling the heat. Once accountable for about 50 percent of Microsoft's revenues, Office contributed less than one-third of the company's revenues throughout 2004, and increased competition from low-cost options such as Corel WordPerfect Office 12 and Sun's StarOffice/OpenOffice.org tandem are starting to hurt as well. But Microsoft's biggest competition in the office productivity space, ironically, comes from within: Older versions of the Office suite, including Office 2000, XP, and 2003, are often cited by customers as being good enough. Thus, businesses aren't upgrading to new Office versions as quickly as they used to. And most now skip a version or two before upgrading.

Looking back over the past several Office versions, the reluctance to upgrade is understandable. In Office 2000 (see my review), Microsoft added pervasive Web integration, a multi-item Office clipboard, Single Document Interface (SDI) user interfaces to key applications like Word, controversial personalized menus and toolbars, and more. Office XP (see my review), released in 2001, saw the debut of task panes and Smart Tags, new collaboration features, and some document recovery and reliability improvements. In Office 2003 (see my review), Microsoft broke its suite out into many more product editions, added some XML-based document types, and basically streamlined how one accesses the already packed Office feature-set. The idea was to give people more obvious ways to access functionality they didn't know was even in there already. Office 2003 also saw the introduction of two new Office applications, OneNote and InfoPath.

As you can see, not much has changed since Office 97, not really. Sure, for hard core writers such as myself, small improvements in each version to Word pay off, and upgrading makes sense. With each version, too, Outlook has gotten significantly better, as has the Outlook Web Access (OWA) feature in Exchange 2003, which shipped just after Office 2003. But for run-of-the-mill knowledge workers and consumers, Office is overly expensive, with little to justify the huge cost of upgrading. It's no wonder that Microsoft has been fretting over the upgrade dilemma for a few years now.

Now, in early 2005, Microsoft is plotting the path to Office 12, its next major Office version. Office 12 will once again push collaboration features for businesses. It will arrive with a new range of Office-based servers. It will push the XML envelope even harder. But for Microsoft, the goal with Office 12 is more basic and more pressing than ever before. After years of lackluster upgrades and increased competition, Microsoft will seek to finally push its legacy users off of Office 97, fight the "good enough" arguments, and try to deliver a suite that meets the needs of many, many market segments. In this showcase, I'll detail the Office 12 delivery schedule and examine early Office 12 prototypes and plans.

Office 12 timeline

Microsoft has long planned to ship Office 12 simultaneously or "nearly simultaneously" with Longhorn, its next major Windows version. However, Longhorn will RTM in May 2006, and Office won't be completed until late 2006, as shown below. Some of the internal documentation I've seen suggests that Microsoft will actually delay the public availability of Longhorn until Office 12 can ship, because Office 12 is such a major component of the Longhorn wave of products. I guess we'll have to see how that pans out. But in the meantime, here's the Office 12 delivery schedule:

Office 12 public disclosure: May 2005
Microsoft plans to begin unveiling the Office "wave 12 pillars" to key customers in May 2005, the earliest in an Office version's lifetime that the company has ever done so.

Beta 1: October 2005

Beta 2: First half of 2006
This will be available as a public beta as well.

Beta 3: Mid-2006
This will be available as a public beta as well.

RTM: Late summer 2006

General availability (GA): October 2006

Office 12 "vision"

As with previous Office versions, Microsoft has developed a high-level "vision" for Office 12, and this time, it's all focused on the enterprise. Specifically, Office 12 will offer the features found in the following sections.

Maximize employee impact

The goal here is to "increase employee self-sufficiency and effectiveness with integrated, easy-to-use tools and modern work products." Office 12 will feature a new, "results-oriented" user interface, integrated access to Office Online communities and resources, and online learning tools that are constantly updated based on feedback.

Office 12 will also provide custom, pre-built layouts and slide libraries, for faster document authoring: These libraries will appear in a new Reuse task pane, and you can store your own locally or via SharePoint. For users on the road, SharePoint document libraries, contacts, calendars and task lists will be available offline. Office 12 will also build on the Fast Search technology in Longhorn and provide rapid email and document searching capabilities from within Office applications.

The new Outlook 12 application will feature dramatically improved calendaring functionality (Prototype) that provides a single view for both calendar schedules and tasks. And tasks, finally, can be assigned a time of day and be applied directly to your calendar. In email view, you can create a task directly from an email message (Prototype) and view upcoming tasks directly in the new To Do task pane.

Office 12 is also getting more graphical, with new tools that help you turn text into graphics. The idea is that you can reformat these text-based graphics just as you would format actual text from within most Office applications (Prototype). And Office 12 will finally start offering the types of high-quality charts, graphs, and diagrams that Mac:Office has provided for years

Collaboration

Office 12 will support multiparty audio, video, and data collaboration through a variety of integrated technologies, including telephony, Web conferencing, presence, and instant messaging (IM) (Prototype). Furthermore, Office 12 will support secure, federated access to public IM networks, including AOL and Yahoo!

For those who attend frequent meetings, Office 12 will support shared note-taking, meeting recording, and post-meeting search capabilities.

Knowledge discovery and insight

A new Microsoft Excel server product will enable centrally managed and published spreadsheets and reports. The server will provide performance, scalability, and security capabilities that aren't possible in client-side solutions, and make it easier to tie Excel spreadsheets into back-end data sources. The Excel client will be able to access these server-side spreadsheets via Web services, or retrieve entire XML-based workbooks. You will also be able to perform most Excel functions on server-side spreadsheets via a Web browser. Excel 12 will feature new exploration and analysis tools, as well as new conditional formatting and pivot features.

A new intranet-based Report Center (Prototype) will provide a SharePoint-like dashboard for creating and viewing reports that are based on back-end data, including that stored within server-side Excel spreadsheets.

Information worker solutions

FrontPage 12 (Prototype) will make it easier to integrate data from external sources into your Web applications. It will also provide the ability to build custom application workflows, Web forms, and data views.

Access 12, like FrontPage 12 and Excel 12, will make it easier to access data in external data sources. Access 12 will also provide rich data analysis, robust reports and forms, and will include new templates that make it easier to get up and running.

InfoPath 12 is being improved significantly with server-side forms capabilities, Visual-Studio-based developer tools, a much improved Designer application for information workers, and a new InfoPath client that features deep integration with Outlook, rights management support, and a better offline experience.

System requirements

Microsoft Office 12 will run on Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2) or later, or the Windows Longhorn client. Server components will require Windows Server 2003 or later and, potentially, SQL Server 2000 or later. Office 12 will support x64 platforms natively, though it's not clear whether this support will ship in the box with the initial release, or later as a separate add-on.

Conclusions

Obviously, there's not a lot to say yet, but I'm surprised that Office 12 will take so long to come to fruition. There must have been a lot of pressure internally to ship Office 12 alongside Longhorn. And certainly, Office 2003 hasn't been the runaway success that Microsoft had wanted. Regardless, Office has always been a high quality product, and there's no reason to doubt that Office 12 will be the most impressive version yet. All that we have to worry about now is the wait.