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Microsoft on Thursday announced a further delay to its latest Office suite of software programs, a move that could presage a further postponement of the release of its Windows Vista operating system, according to analysts.

Microsoft said it needed to improve the product’s performance and design after feedback from business users trying a test version of the suite, which includes the Word, Excel and PowerPoint word-processing, spreadsheet and presentation software.

Office 2007 for businesses was scheduled to be released in October this year, but it has been put back to nearer the end of the year, the company said.

The version available in stores will still be on the shelves in January as planned. Microsoft had fixed this date in March when it pushed back the release of Vista for installation on new computers to January, after previously planning to have it ready for this year’s holiday season, beginning in November.

Instead, only businesses will get Vista before the end of the year, although analysts at Citigroup on Thursday said they expected a further delay for the operating system.

“Microsoft will likely continue to shoot for a joint release of Office and Vista, so we expect to hear that Vista will also be pushed back to late 2006 for volume [business customers] and late [in the first quarter of 2007] or possibly into Q2 ’07 for the consumer,” they said in a note.

“The risk is that these persistent delays could indicate quality issues that may dissuade enterprises and consumers from becoming early adopters.”

In another blow to the Redmond, Washington company, Vic Gundotra, a 15-year veteran, is to leave the company in a year’s time to join Google. He has been a general manager for “platform evangelism” at Microsoft, his new role at Google is yet to be decided. Microsoft also said on Thursday it was cutting 214 sales positions in Redmond in a reorganisation.

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