The week in technology: Office update fails to impress

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It was a busy week for Microsoft as they revealed details of some hotly-awaited new products, while defiantly defending itself against European Union regulators and critics of its actions in China.

Microsoft named its latest Office suite of software - up until now referred to as Office ‘12’. The official name is 2007 Microsoft Office System.

The new package can be viewed in beta here, while you can learn more about the package here. An updated Beta version will be available soon while the finished product is expected to be available by the end of the year.

Brian Jones, a program manager in Office, described the new package as “the most significant release of Office in over a decade (and it’s been awesome to work on over the past several years)”. It is the first major new version since 2003.

Mr Jones said the company had moved away from the “one-size-fits-all” approach to offer targeted Office packages for a variety of work and home users.

Apart from updated versions of old favourites like Word, Excel and Outlook, the suite will include two new bits of software: SharePoint Designer, for building workflow-enabled applications, and Groove, which helps teams to work together inside collaborative workspaces, regardless of their location or connectivity.

The arrival of such a prominent product prompted a fair amount of comment from the blogosphere, although few got that excited.

Ok so no big suprise here really,” appeared to be the concensus. Most seemed to be more concerned with the name than the content, wondering why Microsoft had reversed its normal naming pattern by putting the

Most criticism was reserved for the absence of email system Outlook in the student and home users packages.

“I’m surprised that they’re replacing Outlook with OneNote in the new Home and Student edition. OneNote is a really great app (especially for students), but what about all of those students with smartphones or Windows Mobile devices? What are they going to sync to, if not Outlook?,” said a reader on Robert Scoble’s blog.

More exciting for techies was the release of the long-awaited Office Live in beta form.

Office Live is a collection of services to run your business online, including domain names, email addresses, office document creation, databasing and spreadsheet-type applications.

Tom Parrish said Microsoft was ahead of Google in the race to develop an online business tool.

“I’m curious to learn more. We all expected Google to be the first to the market with some kind of web-based office production. Well, we haven’t heard from Google yet, though you have to figure they have something up their sleeve in this area,” he said.

However his efforts to test the product were frustrated by the procedure to sign up for the test version.

“And here is the kicker: After I spent time creating an account to simply try it out, I was told, “If you are selected as a beta participant, you will receive your e-mail invitation and unique product key in 2-4 weeks.”

Anand M, on his blog .NET from India, was pleased that the basic Office Live package was expected to be free.

“Looks like they are going to keep the basic version free even after Beta. Not a bad deal for a domain name, 30MB storage, 10GB monthly transfer and some online web designer tools (Did I mention you also get 5 email accounts with 2 GB of space per account).”

Click here for more discussion on Office Live.

Meanwhile, Microsoft continued to fight back vigorously against the European Commission’s latest antitrust charges, saying the regulator had “ignored key information and denied Microsoft due process in defending itself”.

Microsoft, which faces a €2m a day fine if it does not abide by an EU ruling to open up some of its software to competitors looking to offer rival products, has offered up portions of its source code instead, describing it as the “ultimate documentation”.

But Brian on Thinkingmonkey.com said the software giant was “acting like a four year old forced to do something it doesn’t want to do”.

”Essentially Microsoft is saying,’We have discussed this with bunch of computer professionals and they all agree. The source code is enough.’ The EU officials then asked,’Who are these people?’ To which Microsoft responded,’We cannot tell you.’

However, the neverending antitrust case is beginning to win Microsoft some unlikely supporters such as Mac user John Koetsier.

“I’m the last person to be a Microsoft apologist - I’m a Mac person through and through, as anyone who follows my blog knows. But what the EU is doing smacks of a witchhunt. Worse, I’m getting the feeling that there’s more than a small amount of anti-Americanism in this whole legal shakedown. Not to mention a big slice of European protectionism.”

“The Europeans actually want Microsoft to not just avoid competing unfairly with other companies. The also want Microsoft to give those companies a friendly helping hand - a boost. I think that’s unfair.”

The other issue splitting the web at the moment is technology companies’ relations with China.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Bill Gates defended his company’s actions in China, arguing against an outright ban. He said the internet was a “tool for openness” and said the US government should legislate on how companies should deal with states where freedom of expression was restricted. (Click here for a full transcript of the interview).

Microsoft said to the US congressional sub-committee on human rights that it would lay out explicit standards for such removals, will notify the affected individuals of the reasons, and will make restricted blogs viewable by users outside the country of concern.

While Blogging4business described Microsoft’s approach as “sensible” many others have criticised the company in its dealings with the Communist state.

But as Microsoft, Google and Yahoo come under fire for succumbing to Chinese censorship in order to get a toehold in the lucrative market, others are looking at ways to circumvent China’s Great Firewall.

Ravi Shakya said on his techspace blog that “hacktivism” was already helping Chinese internet users to express themselves freely.

“A software called ‘Freegate’ allows the surfers in China connect to the servers in the US for retrieving uncensored news and Web-contents. This cleverly devised piece of code frequently changes the IP addresses of the servers in the US.”

Meanwhile, Bennett Haselton, the creator of a program called Circumventor, says it is able to break through the great firewall, allowing internet users in China to full access to the web.

Mobile VoIP challenge

The 3GSM conference, held this week for the first time in Barcelona, was bigger than ever as the mobile telecoms industry again gathered to generate as much excitement

One of the most interesting product announcements was Nokia’s 6136 phone, which supports WiFi as well as GSM, posing the possibility of users switching to free, VoIP-based phone calls whenever they are within range of a WiFi hotspot.

Mobile operators say the threat posed by WiFi is not so big, as WiFi is just

However The Register thought it could mean something for the ... “It’s small, it’s boring and won’t turn any heads - but it probably spells the end of the road for Skype, Vonage and any other hopeful independent VoIP companies,” wrote The Register.

But Skype and its ilk are not going to take the UMA challenge lying down: a deal between Skype and Hutchison will see the Three network owner sell phones with Skype on it. Without WiFi support, users won’t be getting free calls anyway - or could even pay more for a Skype call than a normal Three call.

Skype - which is no doubt under more pressure to monetise its user base after being bought by eBay last year - was clearly pitching it as a service for their existing users who want to take other features of the software, such as their managed contacts lists.

They will face stiff competition on this front: Microsoft, for one, is also there with its Mobile Windows software, which supports VoIP and messaging.

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