When the next version of Microsoft Office--currently dubbed Office 10--debuts next year, the creation of Web-based collaboration solutions will be easier than ever thanks to a new developer feature called the Office Designer. And Microsoft first demonstrated this feature Monday at the Microsoft Exchange & Collaborations Solutions Conference (MEC) 2000, where the company also announced the immediate availability of Exchange 2000 Server. Microsoft senior vice president Steve Sinofsky says that Office Designer will enable the creation of solutions that work whether the user is online or offline. "Office Designer is a groundbreaking new visual development tool that offers exciting new opportunities for developers," he says. "For the first time, they can quickly create integrated Web-based solutions for their employees or customers that run seamlessly offline."

Office Designer applications run on the Local Web Storage System, which will ship with Outlook 10, part of the wider Office 10 suite. The Local Web Storage System, which is based on the Web Storage System feature from Exchange 2000 Server, provides local storage of Exchange and Outlook resources, allowing users to access personal information when they are offline or on the road. This makes applications development easier, because separate code won't need to be created to handle offline situations. The Web Storage System is also a key feature of "Tahoe," an upcoming server product that will store information in Outlook 10 and seamlessly synchronize with Exchange 2000 servers.

For developers, Office Designer will offer a familiar environment, good news for the estimated 2.6 million people that currently develop Office-based solutions. Office Designer will also integrate tightly with the next version of Visual Studio, which is also due in early 2001. "Office Designer provides a complete environment for creating Web-based applications that is already familiar to millions of developers," Sinofsky says. "These developers can leverage their existing knowledge to create applications that take advantage of the power of the Web Storage System in Exchange 2000 and 'Tahoe,' and the simplicity and familiarity of Office."

Microsoft said this week that Office 10 will be available "late next spring." For more information about Office 10, please see my preview of Office 10 Beta 1 on the SuperSite for Windows