A new version of Office could be closer than expected if Microsoft decides to release an interim version of its Windows operating system before the debut of Longhorn, which isn't due until 2006.

Microsoft's Office team is closely following a project named "Windows XP Reloaded" on the Windows side of the company, a Microsoft official said last week.

The XP Reloaded project is exploring ways to deliver further updates to Windows XP after the release of Service Pack 2 later this year and before the release of Longhorn.

"When the Windows team does innovation within their operating system, we are going to take advantage of that innovation," says Gytis Barzdukas, director of Office product management at Microsoft. "When the Windows guys rev, we're going to be interested in revving also."

But while the Windows XP Reloaded talks could lead to a revision of Windows before Longhorn, it is too early to draw any firm conclusions, Microsoft says.

The same goes for the Office team. "We don't have a definitive plan. We haven't made a decision to do something interim between now and Longhorn," Barzdukas says.

A new Office version only makes sense if the update to Windows contains features the productivity applications can take advantage of, Barzdukas says. Changes to the user interface or Windows storage technology, for example, would be a reason to come out with a new version of Office, he says.

Analysts at Gartner predicted earlier this year that Microsoft would offer interim releases of Windows and Office prior to the release of Longhorn to appease customers who signed up for its Software Assurance licensing program, which provides three-year contracts for software maintenance and upgrades.

Longhorn is the code name for a major new operating system release expected in about 2006. Microsoft has said that around the same time of the Longhorn OS release it will offer a new version of Office and new server products.

Meanwhile, various news reports suggest that Windows XP Reloaded will pack no significant new features, and will instead be a bundle of Windows XP with all updates and patches and a new version of Windows Media Player.

Such a bundle would allow PC vendors to ship systems with up to date Windows software and save users from downloading the updates released since Windows XP became available in December 2001.

With a minor revision of the operating system, any updates to the Office suite will also be incremental and probably be nothing more than a service pack, says Paul DeGroot, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft in Kirkland, Washington.

"It really depends on whether this interim version of Windows really contains any dramatic new features that are going to affect the way applications run," he says.

For now, Microsoft says it is concentrating on the release of Windows XP SP2 and Office 2003 SP 1. Both service packs are due out midyear. The Windows XP service pack is a security-focused update, while the Office service pack offers bug fixes and additional features, especially for the InfoPath XML form manager.