Today, Microsoft announced the immediate availability of the Producer for Microsoft Office PowerPoint 2003 beta, a free PowerPoint 2003 add-on that will ship in final form later this year. Producer 2003, like its predecessor, which works with PowerPoint 2002, lets knowledge workers create unique media-rich presentations that combine video, audio, images, and PowerPoint slides. Users can deliver the presentations through the Web or package them for delivery on CD-ROM, DVD, or through other electronic means.
   "Producer for PowerPoint 2002 is already one of the most popular downloads for Office XP," Gabe Knapp, a product manager in the Windows Digital Media Division told me in a prerelease briefing last week. "So we're building on that with a number of new and enhanced features in Producer 2003 that enhance core functionality such as capture, organization and editing, synchronization, and publishing."
   Producer 2003 adds support for the superior Windows Media Audio (WMA) and Windows Media Video (WMV) version 9 codecs, letting users capture and publish content with a 20 percent improvement in audio compression and as much as a 50 percent improvement in video, compared with earlier versions. Producer 2003 also features a new Wizard-based interface, better integration with PowerPoint, and compliance with the e-learning standards from groups such as the IMS Global Learning Consortium and the US Department of Defense (DoD) Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM), which will let more educational and government institutions use the product. Also furthering the product's reach is new compatibility with browsers other than Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) for Windows; Producer 2003 presentations can now be used with Netscape browsers (version 7.0 and higher) on Windows and with IE for the Macintosh.
   The Producer 2003 beta is now available as a free 46.6MB download from the Microsoft Web site. The company will use feedback from this release to determine the final release, which will also be free.