Microsoft hopes to release the next version of Office for Windows, now known simply as Office 9, by year's end. Office 9 will extend the features found in Office 97 (which can be thought of as "Office 8", explaining the new naming convention) by adding server-side enhancements and closer hooks to Windows NT. Previous versions were geared more toward Windows 95.

Office 9 will allow systems administrators to automate upgrades using the Active Directory feature in Windows NT 5.0. A key feature of the new suite is that it will be broken up into small units called components that let users install just the pieces they need. On a network, components will be downloaded on an as-needed basis as well.

"In the new version, you can download components on demand," said Office 9 group product manager Kirstin Larson. "The goal is to make Office attack the bloatware issue \[that plagues Office 97\]. The block feature in Access doesn't have to be given to a client. However, in the old days if you wanted to give it to them, you would have to go into setup to reinstall that feature. Now, the user can click on the block feature and if he didn't have it, it would be downloaded to him. Currently, you can block a feature from a desktop, but you need to reinstall it; now you don't."

A limited beta of Office 9 will begin by June, with a larger test group expected by late summer