Microsoft Office to get overhaul with upgraded voice support in SAPI 5.0

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MICROSOFT HAS several ambitious goals for the next version of Office, its desktop applications suite: enhance user collaborative options, leverage rich voice technology, and further the company's foray into the application-hosting arena.

Office 10, the code name for the next version, is scheduled to go into beta testing this summer and to ship sometime in 2000, according to sources.

Microsoft wants to reshape Office to better accommodate workgroup and collaborative applications, according to analysts familiar with the company's plans. One contentious issue has been which back-end platform can best anchor the product. Although SQL Server and Site Server are among the choices, Exchange seems to be the leading candidate, sources said.

"This will be a perfect fit for the new Exchange 2000 Conferencing Server. Microsoft's strategy is to provide a platform for secure, reliable, and globally available Office, Web, and Instant Messaging services," said Scott Schnoll, product support manager at TNT Software, a Windows-based software vendor in Vancouver, Wash. "That also includes data, video, and voice conferencing."

Microsoft is scheduled to ship in May the first beta versions of Exchange 2000, which reportedly will include sample applications that look and act similarly to the new versions of Office.

"These will give you some idea about how Office apps will act, as well as the role Exchange will play in workgroup applications," one source said. "You will be able to deduce from that how the front Office apps will look."

Hoping to push speech technology beyond a desktop novelty into a serious user interface, Microsoft is leveraging its partnership with speech technology company Lernout & Hauspie to integrate full voice control in Office 10. The new version will integrate full voice control of all Office functions such as save, file, and print, and will include speech-to-text capability for dictation and text-to-speech capability for reading e-mail, sources said.

In about six months, Microsoft will release a rewritten version of its Speech Application Programming Interface (SAPI) 5.0 as part of its Software Development Kit program, said Doug Henrich, product manager of Microsoft's Speech Development Group.

"SAPI 5.0 is good news. From a developer's standpoint, at a large multinational there will be fewer APIs to track and better error handling," said Bill DeStefanis, senior director of product management at L&H, in Burlington, Mass.

Error handling will allow developers to build "barge" capabilities into their applications, which would let users interrupt and stop a text-to-speech session, DeStefanis said. For example, a user could stop the dictation to go to the next e-mail message.

SAPI 5.0 also will recognize XML tags from the Web. This will allow nonvisible XML tags to flag the speech engine and execute commands. The result will be a highly interactive Web site not possible with HTML, DeStefanis said.

"Reading of XML would imply that it will support Voice XML, or other dialects written in XML that could be downloaded from a Web site," said Bill Meisel, an analyst at TMA Associates, in Tarzana, Calif.

On the application hosting front, Microsoft is betting that Office 10's further embrace of the Web will boost the suite's attractiveness to ASPs (application service providers) and ISVs looking to host Office applications on a rental basis. Microsoft recently beggan offering applications on a rental basis to small businesses at www.bcentral.com.

"Their vision is that within two years there will be a large number of Office portals that will run Windows 2000 Datacenter in clusters, and offer Office applications and collaboration and conferencing services on a rental basis," TNT's Schnoll said.

Microsoft declined to comment on Office 10.

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