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Microsoft has been holding its Office 12 cards close to the vest. But it’s becoming increasingly apparent that there will be some new Office Server products in the company’s next-generation Office suite lineup.

Sources close to Microsoft say the company is well on its way to developing a server version of its desktop Excel spreadsheet product. And Microsoft has been hinting since 2003 that it is strongly considering adding a server version of its Visio charting/diagramming product to its family of Office System products.

The trade magazine CRN reported earlier this week that the Redmond, Wash., company also has a server version of its InfoPath electronic-forms application on the drawing board.

Office 12 is the code name for the next major version of Microsoft’s Office System client and server products. Microsoft has not released a public delivery date for Office 12, but most company watchers are expecting it to ship in the 2006-plus “Longhorn wave” time frame. Microsoft has said Office 12 won’t be tied to Longhorn, however. Office 12 products also are expected to run on older versions of Windows, most likely Windows XP and Windows Server 2003.

Microsoft already offers a handful of server products under its Office System umbrella. Its current Office Servers are Content Management Server, its Web-publishing product; Exchange Server, its e-mail server; Live Communications Server, its enterprise instant-messaging product; Project Server, its project-management offering; and SharePoint Portal Server, its team-collaboration product.

Microsoft corporate vice president Kurt DelBene oversees these products in his role as head of the Microsoft Office Server Group.

It’s unclear what new features and functionality might be part of an Excel Server product. But Visio product manager Jason Bunge told Microsoft Watch last year that company officials were contemplating building a Visio Server, a la Microsoft Project Server. Bunge said such a move might be accompanied by a formal repositioning of Visio, in an attempt to officially rechristen the product as more of a “corporate intelligence” tool, than a traditional charting/diagramming one.

Click here to read about alternatives to Microsoft Office that are looking at server-based applications.

Microsoft declined to discuss Office 12 in any way. When asked about plans to expand the company’s Office family, a spokeswoman issued the following statement: “Today, we’re focused on working hard with partners to deliver the great productivity enhancements in Microsoft Office 2003 and the existing products in the Microsoft Office System. At this point, it’s a little premature to speculate about what might or might not be in future versions of the Office System.”

But according to sources, it’s unlikely that Microsoft will position its new Excel Server or Visio Server products as part of a thin-client solution, obviating the need to run Excel or Visio on the desktop. Instead, sources said, Microsoft is expected to play up the benefits of running Excel or Visio on both the client and server, emphasizing the new collaboration possibilities such “smart client” scenarios would create.

Microsoft already is embarking on a similar “better together” strategy with the next generation of its Visual Studio tools products. When it delivers its Visual Studio 2005 desktop-tool suite by mid-2005, Microsoft also will debut the first server product from its developer division: Visual Studio 2005 Team System. Microsoft is emphasizing that these client and server Visual Studio SKUs are meant to be used together.

Windows and Office are still Microsoft’s biggest cash cows by far. But the teams behind both products are facing similar dilemmas: how to grow revenues in spite of near total U.S. market saturation.

The Windows team has opted to create new Windows SKUs, such as the Windows Starter Edition, Windows Media Center Edition and Windows Tablet PC Edition products. Earlier this month, Microsoft officials also said they are evaluating creating versions of Windows Embedded for specific vertical markets, starting with retail.

The Information Worker unit that oversees Microsoft Office—a product that has more than 90 percent of the Windows desktop office-suite market—is facing a similar challenge.

To read the full story on Microsoft Watch, click here.