Microsoft is 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 Microsoft executive Chris Capossela, posted to the company's website late last night, gives more nuts and bolts details of the Office 12 plans, however.

The new version of Office will focus on areas such as collaboration, business intelligence, enterprise content lifecycle, and reducing IT complexity, according to Capossela, who is the company's vice president of the Information Worker Product Management Group.

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, Capossela said. Office 12 will also incorporate peer-to-peer capabilities using technologies the company gained from its acquisition of collaboration software maker Groove Networks, he said.

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, Capossela said. Users will then be able to share that information through a portal site, or workspace, offering greater team collaboration, he added.

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, Capossela said.

IT complexity will be addressed with features that centrally define expiration and archival policies for content, and tools to help meet regulatory compliance and reporting standards, according to Capossela.

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, 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, Capossela said.

Microsoft will begin beta testing of the new productivity suite 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. .