Microsoft Office, the ubiquitous suite of productivity applications from the number-one PC software company, is set for a radical change later this year when the Office 97 edition is released. About one year ago, it became the first 32-bit Windows 95-ready software on the market. Michael Aldridge, product marketing manager for Microsoft Hong Kong, said the Office 97 edition was the biggest product introduction on the applications side since last August, when Microsoft Windows 95 and Office for Windows 95 were launched. Many of the details of Office 97 are already known, while other features, previewed under non-disclosure agreements, will probably be made public in the next two months. Office 97's most exciting known feature is Outlook, the new universal interface. Lani Ota, group product manager from Microsoft's Redmond headquarters, said it would change the function of the average desktop even though the intended tasks would remain the same. 'Outlook is a desktop information manager that represents the convergence of several existing applications and capabilities,' Ms Ota said on a preview tour in Hong Kong. 'Personal information managers, e-mail, scheduling will all be brought into the one application.' Outlook will be sold both with Office 97 and as a standalone software application. '[Previously] you have had to . . . use different software, different user interfaces and different operations to use all those functions,' Ms Ota said. The growth of Internet and e-mail usage has prompted the convergence. 'E-mail is everywhere, with 70 million users . . . today and an estimated 200 million users . . . by the end of the century,' Ms Ota said. The Outlook bar will have six basic folders or modules: Inbox; Calendar, which travellers can reset to synchronise a system clock with a new time zone; Contacts, with address proformas for 40 countries; Tasks; Journal, which is similar to a timeline of desktop activity; Notes, an electronic version of standard yellow Post-it notes. The Intellisense features have been expanded within Outlook and the first three lines of e-mail messages will be displayed so the subscriber can skip unwanted messages. An auto-date feature within the calendar field will convert plain language such as 'second Tuesday of next month' into the appropriate date. A drag-and-drop feature between Outlook modules into applications such as Word or Excel makes it easier to address or link documents. Office 97 is a recognition also that documents need to be easily formatted for publication in hypertext markup language (HTML), for Internet or Intranet distribution. 'On the Internet, a relatively small group of people is creating content for a very large audience,' Microsoft said. 'Presentation is important but secondary. Their goal is to get their job done. 'The true value of an Intranet lies in the relevance and quality of the information it contains. 'Users must be able to create information for Web sites, whether Internet or Intranet based, as easily as they do today for print-ing. 'If it is difficult to publish to a Web, the average user will not use it. 'In Office 97 Microsoft has incorporated Web functionality based on Internet standards into each application to enable end users to take full advantage of Intranets.' Office 97 extends FastFind technology, introduced for searches on a local hard drive, to offer a cataloguing or index feature for saved documents and a search mechanism for HTML and Office documents. It enables users to launch a search engine from the desktop. Office 97 is likely to be released in November or December.