Microsoft has released a new beta of Office 2007 in an effort to make the popular suite available to a broader group of potential critics.

The first release was limited to a group of about 10,000 customers and partners, and the final product is slated for release in early 2007. The beta is available as a download to the general public, but will expire on 31 January 2007.

Office 2007’s most visible new feature is a user interface that will change according to the task that a user is performing. The interface replaces current menus and toolbars with a ‘ribbon’ that will change according to the task. It aims to better advertise features that are available as part of the products.

“We think this is a great way to drive new productivity for users,” said Kirk Koenigsbauer, general manager for Office Servers at Microsoft, during a presentation for press and analysts in San Francisco earlier this month.

“We are recognising that people aren’t getting the full value out of the products. We want to do more with this results-oriented user interface to expose more of the functionality in the products that people can take advantage of.”

Microsoft has also focused on increasing the suite’s collaboration and integration features through Microsoft SharePoint and improved search capabilities for enterprises.

Individual applications offer a slew of feature enhancements. Word, for instance, will let bloggers publish posts directly from the application, and a new graphics engine for PowerPoint, dubbed Smart Art, provides templates and automatic layout tools.

The Outlook personal information management application has been expanded with a ‘to do’ bar that lists all upcoming tasks and appointments. Microsoft OneNote will introduce a new feature that lets users perform text-based queries search inside audio recordings.

The technology is developed by Microsoft Research and indexes audio and video notes that have been recorded inside the note-taking application. It will not transcribe the audio, but searches for the phonetic equivalent of a typed word.

OneNote lets users take notes as well as record audio or video. As the application records, it will timestamp the text notes that are added, allowing the user to quickly find a relevant section in the recording.

The audio search aims to let users find recording sections when they have failed to take a text note.

“This allows you to jump directly to individual places in the recordings that are of interest,” said Owen Braun, lead programme manager for Microsoft OneNote.

But Braun warned that the technology has limitations. The recording has to be of high quality, such as a recorded telephone conversation or one-on-one conversation.

Indexing one minute of audio will take the software on average three minutes to index.

“The technology is quite expensive,” said Braun. “But there are scenarios where it’s still worth it to get the benefit of spending the time to index it.”

OneNote will also introduce a mobile version of the application that lets users of PDAs or smartphones take notes with text, audio recordings or pictures. As the device is synchronised with the computer, the notes will be transferred automatically.

OneNote will introduce a new optical character recognition feature that allows the application to search inside a series of documents including screen clips, PDF documents and digital pictures.

The Office 2007 Beta 2 can be downloaded from Microsoft’s website.

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