Microsoft has announced that the next Office suite (code-named Office 11) will run on Windows XP and Windows 2000 only. The company says that Office 11 will rely heavily on XML technologies and that the suite will ship with many significant enhancements and several new applications, including an innovative note-taking application called Microsoft OneNote. Microsoft hopes that this product update will include enough compelling new features to trigger migrations among enterprises that have found the past few Office revisions to be lackluster. Office family products still account for more than 40 percent of Microsoft's annual revenues, but sales growth has slowed dramatically in recent years. Here's what you need to know about Office 11.

Updates and Improvements
Microsoft says that it designed Office 11 with four core goals: security, reliability, mobility, and ease of use. Office 11 meets these goals through a variety of new and updated features, including extensive XML compatibility that enables most Office applications to save documents in XML format for better interoperability with Web services and other XML-aware applications. In a way, XML support in Office completes an important circle for Microsoft: Previously, the company supported this important technology with only its server products and Web services. By supplying client-side XML support in the popular Office suite, Microsoft will likely usher in a new era of end-to-end data interoperability. A new programming suite called Visual Studio Tools for Office will let developers create applications and services that exist inside Word and Excel documents. Microsoft calls such documents SmartDocs.

The Office 11 core applications include several significant improvements. Outlook 11 sports a drastically revised UI that helps users stay on top of their daily communications. Word 11 includes a new Reading Layout view that's similar to Adobe Systems' Adobe Acrobat Reader's and lets you use enhanced ClearType technology to view documents. Excel 11 includes support for improved Smart Tags that you can associate with specific worksheet cells. And PowerPoint 11 is compatible with Windows Media Player (WMP) for in-presentation multimedia capability and has a new Package-to-CD feature for creating portable presentations that work on systems that are not equipped for PowerPoint.

Access 11 improvements include new field-level Smart Tags, AutoCorrect capability, context-sensitive Help for building SQL queries, a few developer-oriented niceties, and a new database backup feature that works directly from the Access UI. Microsoft has overhauled FrontPage 11, building in a true programmer's editor like Visual Studio .NET's; support for important Web technologies such as HTML, Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), Extensible Style Language (XSL), JScript, and ASP.NET; and a new split code/design view. Microsoft has also updated Publisher 11 with advanced Web site tools and better support for commercial printing.

New Technologies
Office 11's XML support will center on a new technology or Office application (Microsoft hasn't decided which yet) called XDocs, which will integrate back-end XML Web services technologies with client PCs. Developers and IT administrators can use XDocs to build client-side interfaces that access server-based information stores. Previously, companies might have used Web pages for this purpose, but Web pages have two significant limitations. First, Web pages don't provide especially rich UI environments, and they don't support many of the Office features that users have come to expect (e.g., spelling and grammar checking, WYSIWYG drag-and-drop functionality, conditional formatting). Second, Web pages aren't persistent and are ineffectual for entering huge amounts of data that you might need to input over time.

To correct these and other limitations, XDocs presents users with the familiar Office application interface. XDocs supports three modes. In Design mode, developers and technical users can create forms-based interfaces that interact with XML back-end systems. In Editing mode, end users can access an XDocs form and edit existing back-end data. And in View mode, end users can query back-end data and can opt to present it in various visually attractive ways.

New Applications
Office 11 has several new applications, including Picture Library, which offers an interesting array of imaging functionality. But the most significant new application is OneNote, which you can use to capture, organize, and share notes—all from one location. The OneNote UI resembles a tabbed notebook*each tab that appears along the top of the screen represents a notebook and a file on the hard disk. But OneNote doesn't concern itself with file saving or loading. When you restart the application, you find the page you were working on as you left it, just as you would with a real notebook. As with a real notebook, you can divide each OneNote notebook into pages and even smaller increments. Tabs that run down the right side of the UI denote these groups.

OneNote addresses the limitations of using Word to take notes. Word, which Microsoft designed to capture typewritten text, isn't suitable for adding handwritten drawings or other contextual notes. Writing on a pad of paper, of course, is also problematic: On paper, you have more free-form writing options (e.g., you can set the pen down anywhere on the page), but you can't mix and merge existing notes or easily move these documents to the PC. People who take notes on paper often end up transcribing those notes to the PC—in effect, taking notes twice.

Chris Pratley, the product manager for OneNote, told me that because people have different ways of taking and managing notes, Microsoft designed OneNote to accommodate any style. "You can take notes via typing, handwriting, drawing, or even audio," Pratley told me, "and OneNote links it all together."

Is Office 11 for you? Like all Office upgrades, the expected cost of this suite will likely weigh heavily for decision makers at many organizations. I recommend Office 11 if you're implementing XML solutions on the server side or through Web services because of the suite's tight integration with XML. I also recommend Office 11 for users with heavy email needs and anyone who wants integration with Microsoft Exchange Server 2003 (formerly code-named Titanium).