Late on Wednesday, Microsoft announced the release of a technical beta of the next major upgrade to its Office productivity suite, code-named Office 12.0.

The release will be sent to no more than 10,000 customers and partners, said Eric Brown, director of central marketing for Microsoft's information worker EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa) unit. Various customers will do different levels of testing and deployment, Brown said, and then Office 12.0 will go to a broad public beta next spring.

"It's certainly the case that we will expect these customers to get real experience with the product," Brown said. "It will be serious testing, as opposed to having a look under the dashboard."

Office 12.0 will include applications such as Microsoft Office Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, Access, InfoPath, OneNote, Publisher, Project and Visio.

Microsoft has made major investments in the user interface and changed it significantly, Brown said. The firm has also worked extensively on enterprise content management, workflow processes and tools to allow for collaborative work, he added.

Jeff Raikes, president of Microsoft's business division, said Office 12.0 offers many ways to "seamlessly" move between applications and functions. It also features business intelligence functions allowing for simpler creation of data and the sharing of that data with other employees via servers, he added.

Some of Office 12.0's new features were demonstrated by Raikes on Wednesday at the IT Forum in Barcelona. One feature allows for what are termed calendar overlays, where an executive can see a personal calendar in the Outlook email program and then overlay that with organisation calendars on the network.

Outlooks can also be modified to allow for a combination of structured information with "unstructured" information, Raikes said. For example, updates to blog pages done by company employees can be fed by RSS (Really Simple Syndication) into Outlook.

Documents created in Office 12.0 will use XML (Extensible Markup Language) formatting by default, supporting Microsoft's moves toward the standard for web-based services and sharing of information.

Pricing information has yet to emerge. Brown said it will be determined later, based in part on customer feedback.