Microsoft will release a new version of Office next year, Bill Gates said yesterday.

Its release next year has already been the subject of much speculation but it wasn't confirmed until yesterday. The last major version arrived in late 2003.

Microsoft officials have been coy about the next release, but Gates released some new details including that it will include improvement in workflow capabilities, rights management, advanced scheduling, document sharing and business intelligence.

"Those are areas where Office has gotten richer and will in the next big release, which is coming sometime next year," Gates said.

Nailing down the date to 2006 is good, said Rob Helm, director of research at Directions on Microsoft. Still, Microsoft could provide more details to the general public on its product plans. Only a few customers who buy upgrade rights ahead of time are getting more information, under non-disclosure agreements, according Helm.

With Office 12, Microsoft is expected to release more server products designed for workgroup collaboration. Industry observers and analysts have speculated a new Excel server might be in the works, for example, but Microsoft has declined to comment. Existing server products in the Office System family include Project Server, Portal Server and Live Communications Server.

Microsoft originally planned to ship Office 12 alongside the next version of Windows, Longhorn. It is now likely to come before the much-delayed new OS.