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Microsoft Office 2006 release as per schedule

Microsoft has established an internal Microsoft Office 12 ship calendar and the Microsoft Office team is very much sticking to the schedule. The next version of Microsoft Office would be coming in 2006. The Microsoft Office 12 Beta 1 is due this fall.

Microsoft Office 12 initially was thought to be Longhorn-Only, but with Longhorn nowhere in sight, Microsoft Office will now run on Windows XP and 2000 systems.

Microsoft is totally revamping the Office 12 user interface - only the tools relevant for the current job would be highlighted. Some call it the "ribbon" concept in which the user would get a different strip or ribbon of icons depending on the task at hand - only highlight oft-used features in context-sensitive way.

Microsoft Office 12 system will be shipped with some brand-new servers like an Excel Server, Visio Server and many others. For instance, Microsoft Excel 12 server will enable centrally managed and published spreadsheets and reports. Excel 12 will feature new exploration and analysis tools, as well as new conditional formatting and pivot features.

Microsoft Office 12 is clearly aimed at the business user with support for XML-based document types and better collaboration capabilities. InfoPath 2 would see some dramatic improvements. And you may not need any desktop search tool with Microsoft Office 12 - It is based on the Fast Search technology from Longhorn enabling rapid email and document searching capabilities from within Office applications.

Will Microsoft Office 12 programs feature direct publishing to PDF documents - No, but I think Microsoft Office 13 will.

Update: It seems like Microsoft Office 13 will never hit the shelves. Out of superstition, Microsoft is skipping Office 13 and might jump straight to Microsoft Office 14.

When Microsoft says the next version of Office is its most important revision in over a decade, it's not kidding. New XML-based default file formats and a major interface revision are intended to make the market-dominating productivity suite more flexible and accessible than ever.

While veteran users may find that the changes in the new version, code-named Office 12, take some getting used to, they seemed well worth the adjustment in my initial tests of the first beta release. The final version is scheduled to go on sale next year.

We get a set of tabs in what Microsoft calls the "ribbon," an inch-high toolbar that displays key functions relevant to the selected tab. Click on the Write tab in Word, for example, and the ribbon shows font and formatting options as well as the cut, paste, and find/replace functions that used to live in the Edit menu.

Office 12 doesn't force you to use its new default formats: You can still read and write to versions supported by Office 2000-2003. (Another bonus: You can now save files to read-only Acrobat .pdf format.) Conversely, Microsoft says it will make extensions allowing users of Office 2000-2003 to open, edit, and save Office XML files available as free downloads: When users of the legacy versions try to open an Office XML file, they will be directed to the downloads site.

Like its predecessors, Office 12 is a mammoth program; most of us are unlikely to ever use most of its features.

Office XML enables a number of useful new features, including live previews of format changes (more on that capability later). In fact, because each Office XML file is actually a zipped collection of easily accessible component files (text is in one component file, style formats in another, reviewer comments in another), applying changes to these attributes is relatively easy--especially when dealing with a group of related documents.

Simply change the Office XML extension to .zip, open the file using any Zip utility, and remove or change the appropriate component file. For example, you might substitute in a new style subfile (created from scratch by programmers, or simply copied from a different Office XML document created by you or someone else), or strip out the comments file; the underlying text, safe in its own subfile, remains unchanged.