Office 12 Beta 1 Released to Testers

10,000 Microsoft beta testers received a long-awaited e-mail Wednesday evening: Welcome to Office 12. Beta 1 of the next-generation Office suite has been released and is now available for download -- assuming Beta Place doesn't buckle under the mad rush for bits.

In a statement heralding the beta's arrival, Microsoft vice president Chris Capossela called Office 12 "the most significant release in more than 10 years" that comes only after "many years of research and development." But the devil is in the details.

Beta 1 has been broken down into various separate components. Like its predecessors, Office 12 Professional includes Word, Excel, Access, InfoPath, PowerPoint, Publisher and Outlook.

Testers will get a taste of the new user interface Microsoft has created, which replaces the standard toolbars with "ribbons" that offer features specific for the current task. Outlook 12 has a few new features of its own, including a "To Do" bar for viewing mail, tasks and appointments in a single pane, and built-in RSS reader.

Despite the changes, Microsoft has kept its applications trim. The Office 12 Professional CD weighs in at just over 400MB. FrontPage 12, which has been re-focused for SharePoint development as Expression Studio becomes Microsoft's consumer HTML tool, stands on its own at 200MB.

Old Office hats like Microsoft Project, OneNote, Visio Pro, and Business Contact Manager are also available individually, ranging from 100MB to 200MB.

The newcomer to Office 12 is Groove's Virtual Office suite, which Microsoft acquired earlier this year. Aside from its main 190MB download, Groove has three add-ons: Groove Management Services, Groove Data Bridge and Groove Relay Server.

Beta testers will also get a taste of the new server-based offerings. Microsoft has packaged Office 12 Server into a single 408MB download, which contains Project Server and the new SharePoint Portal Servers. These servers will offer hosted Excel and InfoPath capabilities.

Also available on its own, Windows SharePoint Services 3.0 weighs in at just over 160MB. Microsoft warns there will be no upgrade path from Beta 1 for the Office 12 Server products.

Aside from the new server functionality and task-oriented user interface, the big change coming to Office 12 is the new Open XML file format. Although not a published standard like OpenDocument, Microsoft Office Open XML packages editable XML files within a ZIP archive and will be licensed royalty-free.

Microsoft has provided testers a compatibility pack to add support for Open XML to Office 2003. However, the company says that the format will likely change during the Office 12 beta, and any files created in Beta 1 "may not be compatible with the new file formats in later releases."

Office 12 system requirements are also currently up in the air. But Microsoft is aiming to support all users currently running Office 2000 and beyond. "Our goal is that you will not need to upgrade your hardware (you may need to upgrade to a supported operating system)," the company says, adding that no performance optimization has been done for Beta 1.

With the first milestone complete, Microsoft is already looking down the road. Office 12 Beta 2 is scheduled for spring 2006, and will be open to a much larger number of testers. A final release of Office 12, which has not officially been named, is expected for late 2006 -- around the time Windows Vista hits store shelves.

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