Microsoft Previews New Office, Windows

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Microsoft on Tuesday offered developers a sneak peek at the next versions of its two flagship applications -- Windows and Office.

With Windows 7, Microsoft is trying to address some of the perceived shortcomings of Windows Vista, while adding new capabilities such as support for the kinds of multi-touch gestures found on the iPhone and Microsoft's own Surface PC.

Microsoft is making an early test version available to those attending this week's Professional Developer Conference here, with a more broad beta version planned for early next year. The company is aiming to get out the final version by no later than early 2010, though CEO Steve Ballmer has said he is pushing for a release sometime in 2009.

In addition to its touch features, Microsoft is focused in Windows 7 on making an operating system that will allow the PC to start-up more quickly. It also features a new taskbar aimed at offering a slicker way to manage multiple open Windows. Microsoft is also trying to address one of the most criticized features of Vista -- a feature that prompts users to approve many changes that software wants to make to the system. In Windows 7, users will be able to select how often they want to be bugged, or even turn off the feature entirely.

"The focus is on making sure the things you do (today) are easier and that the things you always wanted to do are possible," Corporate Vice President Mike Nash said in an interview. "There's a lot of work we've done to just make things easier and faster."

Microsoft is clearly looking to leave a far different first impression than it did with Windows Vista, which made major changes under the hood and led to considerable incompatibilities. With Windows 7, Microsoft is not introducing any major changes to the Windows kernel and is keeping much of the other plumbing substantially similar to that of Vista.

The early version being handed out to developers at the Professional Developer Conference here has all of the programming interfaces that will be in the final version but only some of the planned features.

Also on Tuesday, Microsoft showed the ability of its next version of Office -- code-named Office 14 -- to run from within a standard Web browser. The move is clearly aimed at trying to head off competition from Google, which already offers Web-based office document editing.

Microsoft won't say when that version will arrive, but Elop said that a technology preview of the browser-based products will come later this year and that a beta version will be released in 2009.

Microsoft will offer browser-based Word, Excel, and PowerPoint in two ways. For consumers, they will be offered via Microsoft's Office Live Web site, while businesses will be able to offer browser-based Office capabilities through Microsoft's SharePoint Server product.

The company has been pushed into this arena by Google, which has been offering its free Google Apps programs for some time. In competing with Google, Microsoft is touting the ability to use Microsoft's familiar user interface, as well as the fact that all of the document's characteristics are preserved.

"If you go into some competitive products right now and take a Word document in and then spit it out afterword, it's unrecognizable," Microsoft Business Division President Stephen Elop said. "You lose a lot of fidelity.

Elop said that not all of the editing capabilities of the desktop products are in the browser versions. "The editing we are characterizing as lightweight editing," he said.

Although Google Apps has seen most of its popularity among consumers, it has started to attract attention from corporate customers. Google Apps got a strong look from Procter & Gamble, which only decided to stick with Office after a strong push from Microsoft.

Part of that pitch, Elop said, included Microsoft offering details on its plans for the Web-based versions of the Office programs.

"This was part of the conversation, absolutely," Elop said. "We have been sharing with customers under varying circumstances to a greater or lesser extent."

Although he didn't name names, Elop said Microsoft has found itself in a competitive situation with Google in other business accounts as well.

By Ina Fried