Microsoft last week announced that the next version of Office, which is still planned for release in the second half of this year, will bear the name "2007." All the different Office suites will include Microsoft Office Outlook 2007 (which is the full, official name), except the low-priced Office Home and Student 2007 version, which will include Office OneNote instead of Outlook, in addition to Office Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.

The suggested retail prices are the same as for Office 2003. The lowest priced retail suite that includes Outlook, Office Standard 2007, will go for an estimated $399, or $239 for an upgrade. Office Small Business 2007 will cost an estimated $449, or $279 for an upgrade, whereas the estimated retail price of Office Professional 2007 will be $499 with an upgrade price of $329. Both products include an improved version of the Business Contact Manager add-in for Outlook. The estimated retail price of Outlook 2007 as a standalone program will be $109.

You'll be able to obtain the two high-end suites--Office Professional Plus 2007 and Office Enterprise 2007--only through volume licensing. These suites add the Office Access, Office InfoPath, and Office Communicator products, plus information rights management capabilities and new enterprise content-management features. Microsoft hasn't released volume-license pricing details yet. If you want to supplement either of these suites with Business Contact Manager, it will be available as a volume-license product. What Enterprise 2007 has that Professional Plus doesn't is OneNote and Groove 2007, Microsoft's first new release of the Groove collaboration software since acquiring Groove Networks last year. In addition to the Groove client application, Microsoft will also be offering Office Groove Server 2007 as a volume-license product and Office Live Groove as an online service for a $79 yearly subscription.

The parallel beta of Exchange 12 has been going for only a few weeks, but organizations that install both Outlook 2007 and Exchange 12 can look forward to a significant streamlining of the process of setting up new clients to access their mailboxes. A new AutoConnect feature lets Outlook 2007 users build a mail profile to connect with Exchange 12 just by typing in their email address. Another key new Exchange feature is a scheduling assistant that makes it easier for Outlook 2007 users to book meetings by presenting options for the best available times.

I've been using Outlook 2007 Beta 1 for a while now and can report that there's a lot to like about it. I can find messages and other items faster with the near-instantaneous search feature. If a message includes an attachment, such as a Word document or a picture, I can preview it in the reading pane. That's a big time saver! The new To-Do Bar organizes my day by displaying my next few appointments and collating the follow-ups I've designated with tasks that I've defined either in the Tasks folder or with the To-Do Bar's quick entry feature. The follow-ups include not just messages in my Inbox but also in any other message or contact folders. They're all color-coded with the totally revamped categories feature. Earlier versions used an often confusing array of marking options--categories, color labels for appointments, follow-up flags, and quick flags. Outlook 2007 consolidates these into one color-coded marking mechanism that you can use to distinguish business from personal items, differentiate projects, and perform many other organizing chores.

Among my favorite new features are the integrated news reader for Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds and the vastly improved iCalendar integration. This being the second week of the Winter Olympics, I've subscribed to an online iCal calendar that gives me the schedules for the events I'm interested in (biathlon rocks!). I can also send my schedule to someone else in an email message that includes both a list of appointments in the body of the message and an .ics attachment. An Outlook 2007 recipient can use that file to add my calendar details to a new calendar folder that Outlook creates automatically. For those who need to coordinate multiple calendars, Outlook 2007 lets you overlay multiple calendars on top of each other in a single view.

If I'm feeling calendar-centric rather than task-centric on a given day, the daily and weekly views of my calendar shows all the tasks and follow-ups that I've assigned to each day, as a color-coded list below my appointments. And, yes, those tasks roll over to tomorrow if I don't finish them today. I find that I lose track of important tasks and deadlines very rarely with Outlook 2007.

Those features are just the tip of the iceberg--the ones that I use most and that have already made me feel more productive. Beyond that, there are improvements to the contact display, two-way synchronization with all kinds of SharePoint lists, InfoPath mail forms, a vastly enhanced Outlook programming model, the use of a special version of Word as the editor for all Outlook items (without the need to launch the full Word application), the new "ribbon" interface in individual Outlook items, and much more. I'll be highlighting specific features in future columns, so be sure to send your questions and comments about Outlook 2007 to me at exadmin@turtleflock.com .

Microsoft's preview page for Office 2007 includes a "Register Now" link that lets you sign up to receive a notification when Beta 2, which will be a public beta, is available. Until Beta 2 comes out, a good way to get up to speed on the new features in Outlook 2007 and the other Office 2007 products is to read the many blogs by members of the different product teams at Microsoft.

Office 2007 preview page http://www.microsoft.com/office/preview/

Office 2007 blogger list http://blogs.msdn.com/erikaehrli/archive/2006/01/23/office12bloggers.aspx