February 19, 2003 7:25 PM PST

Microsoft: Office beta born too soon

Microsoft on Wednesday inadvertently provided developers and enterprise customers with early access to the second testing version of the next version of Office.

The Redmond, Wash.-based company posted Office 2003 Beta 2 on its Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN) Web site on Wednesday, with access available to individuals or businesses subscribing to the service. But Microsoft later removed the software, after an inquiry by CNET News.com.

With availability of the new beta, Microsoft also accidentally revealed that the official name for the product, code-named Office 11, would be Office 2003.

On Wednesday, a Microsoft representative was stunned to hear that Office 2003 Beta 2 had been posted on the MSDN Web site. He initially declined to comment, being caught off guard by the early posting.

Later he said that Microsoft removed Office 2003 Beta 2 from the MSDN Web site. The spokesman did not reveal how many people downloaded the software, which according to the Web site was posted around noon PT. Microsoft pulled the software a little more than six hours later.

"We want to make sure we have all the printed materials ready, so that people have the best experience with the beta," the spokesman said of the beta, which he acknowledged "was the final build. We're still on track to ship the beta by the end of the quarter."

On Tuesday, Microsoft notified Office 2003 beta testers that they would receive their kits within the next couple of weeks. Last week, sources familiar with Microsoft's Office product strategy said testers would receive Beta 2 in March.

Microsoft released the first Office 2003 beta to about 12,000 testers--6,000 within Microsoft--in October. The product is due for summer release, according to Microsoft.

MSDN availability means Microsoft plans to widely test the second Office 2003 beta. During the late testing stages of predecessor Office XP, about 500,000 people had access to a late beta.

Microsoft apparently has made a number of changes in response to beta tester feedback, including new enhancements to Outlook, which on the MSDN site is now called Outlook 2003 with Business Contact Management.

Outlook 2003 is expected to be released concurrently with Exchange Server 2003, indicating that product, which also is in late beta testing, is also on track for summer delivery.

With the new beta, Microsoft will deliver the first widely available testing versions of two new Office products: InfoPath. OneNote is similar to word processing, but it is intended for quick handling of short notes as opposed to long multipart documents.

InfoPath, code-named XDocs, uses Extensible Markup Language (XML) to pull together disparate pieces of information from Office documents into a form-like document. A salesman, for example, might pull contact information from Outlook, an expense report from Excel and itinerary from Word to create a travel report.

Office 2003 supports XML as a second data format, a feature that is expected to widely appeal to businesses looking to extend their data exchange capabilities. XML also is an important technology for delivering Web-based services and kin to the Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) used to format Web pages. The new beta is expected to reveal whether Microsoft plans to open up proprietary schemas, or XML dialects, that could restrict how enterprises make use of the technology.

Also included with Office 2003 Beta 2: SharePoint Portal Server version 2.0 and 2003 versions of SharePoint Team Services FrontPage and Publisher.

The inclusion of SharePoint Portal Server 2--software that businesses use to create portals without the need of paying developers--could be important for supporting InfoPath. Combined with SharePoint Portal Server, BizTalk Server and some other Microsoft server software, the company could create a collaborative information gathering and sharing system using InfoPath as the front end, analysts say.

SharePoint Portal should not be confused with SharePoint Team Services, which is used to create a Web-based shared space for collaborating on projects. Microsoft added SharePoint Team Services support to Office with the release of version XP in May 2001.

Publisher is Microsoft's entry-level desktop publishing program, while FrontPage is used to create and manage Web sites.

Other Office 2003 enhancements include native support for the inking capabilities associated with Windows XP Tablet PC Edition. This means Office 2003 Beta 2 users will be able to annotate documents using a stylus on portables running the Tablet PC software. Office XP users must install an add-on, which does not fully integrate the feature into applications.

 

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