It seems like the big milestones just keep coming for Office '12'. Today, a select group of our customers and partners were given access to the first beta of Office '12'. This is just our next step towards the final release of Office '12' which is scheduled for later in 2006, and it's a great chance for us to gather technical feedback. This is the biggest release of Office in a long time, and the first Beta is pretty sweet.  I'm sure most of you have been reading the news over the past 5 or 6 months about all the new things in Office '12', but I wanted to give a quick recap in honor of the first beta. If I had to sum up Office '12' with just a few key points, here's what I'd say:

  • Most significant release of Office in over a decade - I'm absolutely convinced of this. If you're on the first beta, you'll see what I'm talking about. After using Office '12' for just a few days it's hard to imagine going back to an older version. I don't often feel this way using an RTM version of a product, let alone a beta.
  • Get results better and faster - Thanks to our moves to open standards based formats as well as the integration of our applications, servers, and services; you can significantly improve the quality and efficiency of your work. The amount of content out there continues to grow, and we help you better manage, share, create, reuse, and find that content.
  • Big time productivity improvements - There is a new user interface to give you better access to all of Office's functionality; new graphics and charts to give you better looking documents; and more unified presentation of all your information in Outlook.

Those are pretty high level, but I wanted to try to sum everything up in a few really simple statements. There are of course a lot of different areas we could drill into, but I doubt you have time to read it all. Here are some of the more interesting areas though that I wanted to specifically call out:

  • New User Interface - Those of you that made it out to PDC in September got a sneak peak of this new user interface. It's really a huge positive change, that helps get you quick access to all the main pieces of functionality while at the same time making it easy to find the more obscure things as well. We find that a number of the feature requests we get from our customers are actually for functionality that's already in the product; they just can't find it. I've been using this new UI for awhile now, and I love it. I'm not a very knowledgeable Excel user, and I've found that the new UI really helps me do the kinds of things I'd always assumed Excel could do, but never really could figure out. If you want more information on the new UI, you should check out Jensen Harris' blog. He started blogging back in September and already has a book's worth or information. He kind of puts me to shame :-).
  • New Graphics and Chart engine - This is something we haven't talked about a lot yet, but it's really an exciting area. What the new UI does for improving the look of the application, the new graphics and charts do for improving the look of your documents. The improvements in charts is awesome. Here's an example of a chart that you can create with just a few clicks:

    Click on the chart to get a larger view
  • New File Format - This as you know is the area that is most near and dear to my heart. We are finally fully opening up our file formats in Office. Word, PowerPoint, and Excel will all three use new XML formats as their default formats. These formats will be fully documented and anyone can leverage them to build solutions, or even to build a competitive application. If you're interested in this topic, just keep reading my blog (and look through all my previous entries).
  • Business Intelligence - Not sure you guys have heard the term BI much, but I hear it all the time now. :-) There are a number of different meaning to this, and there are a number of things we're doing in Office '12' to help you work with your data in more powerful and easy ways. For instance, check out David Gainer's blog. He's the group program manager for Excel and he talks about all the new features they are providing in Excel to help you better visualize and manage your data. We've done some research here, and it looks like currently people spend about 25% of their time just searching for information. Another 25% of their time is spent analyzing that information. As you can see, this is an area with a ton of potential for helping people with their efficiency and effectiveness.
  • Content Management - This is an area I'm hoping to talk about more in future posts. Records management, Web content management and document management are all going to be brought together so that anyone in an organization will have an easy time of creating, managing, sharing, archiving, and finding their content. We've done a lot of work here with the file format to make it easier to store document meta data, and even surface that meta data easily so that a document author can quickly fill it in. We've even done work in Word to allow you to map that data onto the surface of the document so that as you edit your document the metadata is automatically filled in as well.

We've already spent a lot of the project talking with customers about the features in Office '12', and now that we've released beta 1, we can really start to dig into the features and make sure we haven't missed anything. There are going to be a lot of partners that will want to build on top of this new feature set, especially the new file format. This first beta is a great opportunity for that.

So, what do you do if you aren't on the list of folks receiving the first beta? Don't fret, Beta 2 will be even more solid and will be made publicly available when we release it next year. You can register for it at the Office '12' preview site: http://www.microsoft.com/office/preview

-Brian