The next version of Microsoft's Office software will feature simpler graphics and try to anticipate users' tasks as the company hopes to...

Share story

LOS ANGELES — The next version of Microsoft’s Office software will feature simpler graphics and try to anticipate users’ tasks as the company hopes to make the product easier to use, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates said yesterday.

Microsoft hopes the new features will entice users who have found it unwieldy to wade through the dozens of tool menus and other features packed into Office, the software suite that includes Word, PowerPoint, Outlook and Excel.

The stakes are high because Office is a cash cow for Microsoft, even as it ventures further into areas such as Internet search and video games.

For Microsoft’s fiscal year ended June 30, the unit that includes Office had operating income of nearly $8 billion, on revenue of $11 billion. The company’s overall revenue was $40 billion.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

Gates used the annual Microsoft Professional Developers Conference to preview Office 12, touting it as “the most significant release of Microsoft Office since Office 95.”

He also showed off the next generation of Microsoft’s operating system, Windows Vista. Both it and Office 12 are due out late next year.

The multibillionaire also poked fun at his geeky image, drawing laughs from the crowd for his role in a video skit featuring actor Jon Heder reprising his uber-dweeb character from “Napoleon Dynamite.”

The skit had Dynamite turning to Gates for help in making his uncle’s business more efficient. At one point, Gates handed him a box for the revamped Office suite of software.

“Dang!” Dynamite said, nodding his head. “This thing has all kinds of new stuff. Sweeeet.”

The previews of Windows and Office focused on their use of graphics to give consumers more ways to manage information on the computer screen.

That’s a growing issue as software applications become more complex. For instance, the first version of Word had 100 commands. The 2003 version has more than 1,500 commands and 35 tool bars.

“We need to make it easier for people to visualize information that comes from different directions,” Gates said.

Microsoft designers developed the system by tracking — with permission — every keystroke of some Office users, said Charles Fitzgerald, general manager of Microsoft’s Platform Strategy Group.

The idea is part of an industrywide trend toward personalizing technology. For example, Microsoft rival Google recently updated its desktop-search capability to present relevant information based on a user’s Web-surfing habits.

With Office 12, Microsoft plans to accelerate a process it began with Office 2003 of more tightly integrating the software with corporate networks.

For example, customers would be able to easily designate which departments see a certain document. The document would be transferred to the right employees’ e-mail inboxes or word-processing programs. The customer would be able to make changes to that process in the Office software rather than having to change the so-called work-flow process on server computers.

Office would also connect with servers to make it easier for users to search for files, work with other employees and cull corporate data. The preview of Windows Vista showed it employing animated, thumbnail photo album-style displays to give users a quick look at the content of every application running on their system.

Hovering the mouse pointer over an index of data folders automatically brought up a snapshot of its contents, not merely a description. A quick search feature is also wired into nearly every Vista application.

Microsoft’s last major operating system redesign — Windows XP — was plagued by security problems, forcing the company to issue numerous software updates to plug holes in the code that made users vulnerable to hackers.

Gates said Vista would be easier to troubleshoot and would “avoid the kinds of security problems people have had.”

Material from Bloomberg News is included in this report.