October 22, 1998 1:40 PM PDT

Microsoft details Office features

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Microsoft has announced accessibility features and interoperability improvements that will be included in its Office 2000 desktop application suite, due for release in the first quarter of next year.

The new product enhancements, which focus on the needs of users who face physical or mental challenges, were demonstrated at an annual conference on computer technology in special education and rehabilitation.

One enhancement in Office 2000 is internal support for the Microsoft Active Accessibility (MSAA) specification, which makes the product easier to use with accessibility aids such as the screen readers used by the blind.

Though Office 97 was the first product to adopt the MSAA programming interface, Office 2000 builds on this commitment and enables developers of accessibility aids to create products that work with most on-screen features, including menus, toolbars, dialog boxes, and forms.

Microsoft is working with users who have disabilities to identify features that would make the software easier for them to use. The new features already created as a result of that teamwork include expanded keyboard access to MSAA relations and graphics, more high-contrast support within the PowerPoint presentation graphics program, customizable views available within Help, improved Active Accessibility support to the Bullets and Numbering dialog box, and better interaction between Microsoft Excel and third-party accessibility aids.

As earlier reported, Office 2000 will inaugurate a new component strategy and will, for the first time, include Microsoft's FrontPage Web authoring tool in certain versions of the final product when it ships next year. It will also include PhotoDraw 2000, the company's new business graphics software.

Expected to be priced around the same range of Office 97, or $499, the new suite also features the first beta version of Outlook 2000, the latest version of Microsoft's email client software. The new version also features enhancements like Office E-Mail, which can be used with any Office application and to send messages as HTML.

In addition, the company demonstrated extensive accessibility features in its Microsoft Cordless Phone System, which is expected to be on store shelves later this month, the company said.

In combination with Microsoft Call Manager software, the Cordless Phone System includes technology that allow callers to communicate with deaf people using a text telephone; compatibility with Windows operating system-based screen readers for blind people; tactile and audio feedback on handset buttons; a handset ear piece that is hearing aid-compatible; voice commands that help to reduce keypad use; and variously shaped buttons on the handset for easier orientation for blind and visually impaired users.

Like Microsoft, IBM also demonstrated products at the conference, which is in its 16th year, along with 148 other software and services companies.

The conference covers a broad spectrum of technology as it is being applied to all disabilities and age groups in education, rehabilitation, vocation, and independent living.

"PC and Internet technology can help level the playing field for people with disabilities, as long as technology companies make sure the products they build are accessible," Greg Lowney, Micorosft's director of accessibility, said in a statement.

Emails and phone calls to the coordinators of the conference were not returned.


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