Microsoft is beginning to release more details of the next generation of its productivity software, code-named Office 12, emphasising tools for greater collaboration, information discovery and content management.

Although the software isn't due out until the second half of 2006, chief software architect Bill Gates will highlight some of its features during an opening address at the company's CEO Summit later today.

Gates is expected to speak on "the new world of work," describing how workplaces have moved from manufacturing to services-based organisations, with demands for greater transparency and accountability in business processes.

An interview with a Microsoft executive, posted to the company's website late last night, gives more nuts and bolts details of the Office 12 plans, however.

In the area of collaboration, for example, the company is trying to make it easier to set up and use shared workspaces in Microsoft Office SharePoint Portal Server, allowing users to exchange information across corporate boundaries. Office 12 will also incorporate peer-to-peer capabilities using technologies the company gained from its acquisition of collaboration software maker Groove Networks.

Out-of-the-box secure enterprise instant messaging (IM) "could be one area" that Microsoft is looking at, according to another Microsoft spokesperson. The company has already been investing in this area, he said, pointing to Microsoft's Live Communications Server 2005 enterprise instant messaging and presence product.

"And we see some further IM investments to come in the roadmap," he added.

Office 12 will focus on the ability to see information more clearly through data visualisation, such as new features in Excel that will allow users to create real time dashboards and scorecards from data within spreadsheets. Users will then be able to share that information through a portal site or workspace, offering greater team collaboration.

The software will give users the ability to create more dynamic documents with new tools such as those planned for PowerPoint which will apply sophisticated formatting and layout to slides.

In addition to adding new bells and whistles to the productivity suite, the software maker has been pushing Office as a development platform. One way it is doing this is through deeper incorporation of XML (Extensible Markup Language), which will make it easier for developers to create software that interoperates with back-end systems. This XML support will also boost the creation of Microsoft Office InfoPath forms, which can be used to extract and analyse data without leaving the Office interface.

Microsoft will begin beta testing of Office 12 in the third quarter of this year, allowing some users to get a closer look at the new technologies. But for now, interested parties may have to settle for the broader view laid out by Gates this afternoon. His address at the CEO Summit will be Webcast live from the company's Web site, beginning at 8:30 a.m. Pacific time.