XML support in Office beta is suite's .Net initiation

Microsoft Corp. Tuesday shipped the first beta for Office 11 with a feature set geared toward corporate computing but one that may spur competition and open a new set of integration options for corporate users.

The most significant addition to Office 11 is support for XML as a supported file format in Word, Excel and Access, three of the core applications of the productivity suite. Over time, Microsoft plans to add XML support throughout the suite, according to company officials.

Microsoft hopes XML will transform Office into a universal client that could be the front-end for serving up XML data from any back-end system, business process or collaboration session. The use of XML means users are free on Microsoft's proprietary file formats and Office can share XML data with any application or pull XML data from any repository.

Experts say opening up the formats is a winner for end-users but likely presents a risk to Microsoft, which is not guaranteed to become the de facto provider of back-end systems.

For example, corporations could use IBM Corp. or Oracle Corp. back-ends to feed data to Office applications.

"By opening up the file format, template format, data format in Word, Excel and Access with XML, Microsoft runs the risk of losing the lock they have on the .doc and .xls file formats," says Ted Schadler, an analyst with Forrester Research. "They run the risk of someone building a better, cheaper Office, an open-source Office."

Sun already has a competitor in its StarOffice product and its companion OpenOffice. Corel Corp. also has a productivity suite called WordPerfect.

Schadler says once users save a document in XML format, the desktop stranglehold is broken for Microsoft and the company has to compete on usability and server connections.

While Schadler says Microsoft is taking a risk, he says the real winners will be end-users who should have far more choices when deploying back-end systems.

"I don't know if Microsoft realizes what it has released," Schadler says.

Microsoft says it has released an Office that breaks out of its desktop role and becomes a key component of .Net, the company's strategy for distributed computing based on Web services.

"This is about the idea that Office is a smart client around .Net," says Simon Marks, product manager for Office. "It's about Office as the interface to a lot of other functionality. It's more about Office as a client/server interface and less about individual applications."

Although Office holds more than 90% of the market for desktop productivity suites, many corporate users have cooled on upgrading as the platform has become saturated with features not relevant to everyday business use. Microsoft's recent licensing changes, however, did touch off a flood of upgrades to Office XP.

Beyond licensing pressure, Microsoft is trying to entice users to upgrade with a client that could front line-of-business applications and portals, and become the front-end for collaboration services.

Office 11 includes a feature called Smart Documents, a programmable trigger for importing and exporting XML data into Office documents.

It could be used to provide what Microsoft calls a "task pane" for adding a help file that would instruct users how to fill out certain cells in an expense report in Excel. Office 11 will ship with a software developer's kit for creating Smart Documents. Microsoft also plans to include a Research Task Pane, an XML search engine that can find information stored on the Web or in corporate systems.

Microsoft also is adding what it calls Document Workspaces, an ad-hoc document collaboration feature based on the company's software for creating team workspaces called SharePoint Team Services. With Document Workspaces, a user could e-mail a Word attachment to another user while also saving the same attachment to a server. When the recipient clicked on the attachment, it would open from the server and the sender and recipient could collaborate on the document. The two would then have a rich set of collaboration features including versioning, task assignments and being able to see who else has access to the document and if they are online or not.

"It would all happen in Word rather than needing another tool," Marks says.

Microsoft has been pushing the concept under the generic heading of contextual collaboration, which allows users to stay in familiar applications to collaborate.

Microsoft also is adding a feature called Meeting Workplaces that also uses the SharePoint Team Services software and hooks into the calendar feature of Office's Outlook client. Outlook also is getting some interfaces changes that will make it easier for users to manage mail when using the Exchange server on the back end.

Both of the workspace additions will depend heavily on instant messaging technology that Microsoft is adding to the core operating system in Windows.Net Server, expected to ship early next year.

Microsoft also plans to incorporate its recently announced XDocs with the suite, although it has not committed to bundling the two together. Both will ship in the middle of 2003, according to Microsoft. XDocs is a simple client tool to input data into back-end systems or to pull data out. For example, a company salesman could use XDocs to input data into an enterprise resource planning application.

"We are really trying to move into a new era of productivity software beyond just writing a letter," Marks says.

The Office 11 beta is being sent to a limited number of testers. The second beta will be open to the public and is likely to ship early in 2003.

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