Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates talked publicly for the first time on Monday about the next big Office release, code-named Office 14, which he said will give users new ways to access their applications online.

Microsoft won’t provide the full functionality of Office online, but it will offer limited capabilities to view and edit the data in Office applications.

It already does this for its Outlook e-mail client with a product called Outlook Web Access, and it will offer similar capabilities for other applications in Office 14, Gates said in a speech at the Microsoft Office System Developer Conference in San Jose, California.

“Outlook Web Access is not the full version of Office, but if you want to go into a kiosk or an Internet cafe and browse and connect, it gives you plenty of functionality,” he said.

“As we look at all the modules [in Office 14] we have in mind the equivalent of Outlook Web Access,” Gates said.

It was the first time Microsoft had confirmed the “Office 14” moniker for the next release, although the Windows enthusiast Web site AeroXperience reported that fact recently, citing an internal Microsoft document.

It also reported that a beta of Office 14 would appear this year, with commercial release planned for 2009.

Gates offered no time line Monday and addressed Office 14 only briefly at the end of his speech, which focused on how developers can extend the current version of Office.

He was answering a question from a developer in the audience who asked when Microsoft would provide full online access for Office in the same way Google does for its Google Apps service.

“There are lots of ways I can get to your Office data, but nothing compares to Google,” the developer said.

Google Apps is used mostly by smaller businesses today, but it is seen as a potential competitor to Office despite having more limited functionality. Microsoft, which makes much of its profits from its Office desktop software, has been criticized for moving too slowly in getting the applications online.

It will take another step in that direction with Office 14, by offering Outlook Web Access equivalents of other Office applications such as Excel. “If you look at spreadsheets, maybe you’ll not be able to set up all the data models [online], but you’ll be able to read documents, change a few assumptions and try things out,” Gates said.

Outlook Web Access is a part of Microsoft’s Exchange Server 2007 software, and it was unclear how the other Office 14 applications would be packaged and delivered.

Gates did say that SharePoint Server, which is becoming more closely aligned with Office, “will be able to render a greater set of Office documents in an HTML environment.”

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