The new release will offer improved online collaboration features, including better instant messaging and support for VoIP (voice over IP). The idea is to help increasingly mobile users find one another on the network as a prelude to collaboration, probably via XML. Microsoft is expanding its use of XML in Office 12, and making it easier for customers to use shared workspaces in SharePoint Portal Server, which helps users exchange data across corporate boundaries. Microsoft is also developing peer-to-peer capabilities for Office through its acquisition of collaboration software maker Groove Networks.
Microsoft plans to offer new functionality for Excel, including the ability to create dashboards and scorecards to track complex and rapidly changing data. PowerPoint will get more automated graphics capabilities.
To address new record-keeping regulations such as Sarbanes-Oxley and HIPAA, Microsoft is working on ways to "lock up" Office documents so that they can be read or shared only by authorized users. Under Office 12, enterprises will be able to set rules for document handling and enforce them using server-based software. The days of passing any file to any other user, via e-mail or floppy, may be over.
We applaud Microsoft for the improvements, but this last "enhancement" gives us the heebie-jeebies. True, SOX and HIPAA call for greater control and auditing of documents. But how can IT departments even begin to handle the task of setting cross-enterprise rules for handling documents, much less enforcing them to the file level? This is an administrative nightmare. We hope Microsoft looks at this technology long and hard before releasing it. --Tim Wilson