Microsoft has announced the first public beta of the next version of Visio, the popular drawing and diagramming software the company acquired in 1999. Microsoft Office Visio 2003 is part of the Microsoft Office System and will be available in standard and professional editions. The company expects to release the final product this summer but hasn't announced pricing at this time.

Microsoft hopes to expand Visio into a business intelligence (BI) tool; the release features new tools that will help businesses connect to enterprise applications and monitor data in real time by leveraging Microsoft .NET and XML Web services. The product will include new diagram types, galleries, and templates to help businesses easily document and analyze business processes.

"The new features and enhancements in Microsoft Office Visio 2003 make it a comprehensive and essential diagramming tool for enterprise customers," said Joseph Eschbach, corporate vice president of Microsoft's Information Worker Product Management Group. "With Visio 2003, we're providing customers with a tool to visually navigate, understand, and improve their business processes, ultimately helping them becoming more productive and efficient and better able to respond to threats from competitors or to new business opportunities."

Visio 2003 will integrate with all the products in the company's newly branded Office System, as well as with Microsoft servers. With the release of Visio 2003, the company will offer developers and industry partners new and updated resources, such as a Visio ActiveX control, a software development kit (SDK), and Shape Studio, a new developer tool that helps simplify the creation of high-quality shapes.

The company plans to extend the technical beta program, which started in February, to the public. If you're interested in participating in the beta, visit Microsoft's Visio Web site