Microsoft touts XML at Office developer event

Microsoft on Wednesday opened the first-ever Microsoft Office System Developer Conference, positioning the productivity suite as a development platform in and of itself and emphasizing XML as the lingua franca for data access in the suite.

Staying mum on details of any future versions of Office, which was last upgraded in late 2003, company officials during Wednesday's keynote and in interviews earlier in the week instead focused on the existing platform's capabilities. The conference is hosting approximately 800 developers and partners invited from around the globe.

"With the launch of Office 2003 and the Office System, we really opened the door on positioning Office as Microsoft's second platform for building applications," behind Windows, said Adam LeVasseur, group product manager for Microsoft Office. All products in Office interoperate with each other and also with third-party systems, he said.

"We've seen a lot of changes in my days here at Microsoft. Office has grown up from an application to a suite of applications to a system of servers and services and applications," said Richard McAniff, corporate vice president for the Office team at Microsoft, during an opening keynote presentation.

XML is center stage at the event. "Already, there are a million professional developers targeting Office 2003, and a full third of those are taking advantage of the XML capabilities, and it's a new technology and we're really excited and inspired by that progress," LeVasseur said.

"Being able to bring information into your system is the number one benefit of XML," McAniff said.

To counter any concerns about XML performance, the company has done work in Office to make the platform efficient in sending XML over the wire, said Jeff Teper, general manager of the Business Portals Group at Microsoft.

Documents can be saved using the native XML file format, whereupon data in the documents becomes searchable, LeVasseur said. Data from back-end systems such as CRM packages can be exposed via XML.

"Another great thing about XML is, once you have an XML structure inside the document, you can then program against the document based on the XML schema" so the document can be customized, said LeVasseur.

"(XML) unlocks the power of what you can do in an application," taking isolated data and allowing it to be reused, he said. Web services, meanwhile, are used to provisioning XML data for consumption by other applications or servers.

Company officials also stressed the company's SharePoint collaboration technology, which enables end-users to build collaboration sites and provide calendaring and presence information. One attendee, from Sutter Health, cited SharePoint as a focus of his company's development efforts.

Sutter Health, which operates a network of hospitals, is interested in utilizing SharePoint services and provisioning to enable collaboration between hospitals, said Andrew Rang, Web developer at Sutter Health. XML serves to assist in provisioning where affiliates can build their own forms, he said.

"It gives us control over what they can build," Rang said.

While the company did not provide specific statistics, Microsoft representatives said upgrades to Office 2003 have exceeded sales expectations, besting the rate of the prior Office XP release.

Microsoft officials did not seem overly concerned about the competitive threat raised by the StarOffice office applications suite.

"We keep an eye on competitors, but we think our ability to integrate and provide customized solutions that (feature) all the incredible rich functionality of Office gives us a significant advantage," LeVasseur said. The company has no plans to port Office to the Linux platform, officials said.

Also this week:

-- Microsoft is pondering development of a prescribed method for customers to integrate their Outlook packages with CRM systems, according to company representatives.

-- Microsoft will provide integration between the upcoming Visual Studio 2005 Team System package due for release this year and the Microsoft Project application for project management. Visual Studio 2005 Team System users can make use of portfolio management and scheduling functions in Project, which will not be bundled with the Visual Studio Team System package itself but be a separate purchase, said Giovanni Mezgec, group product manager for the Microsoft Information Worker Business Group.

-- Visual Studio 2005 Team System is also being integrated with the SharePoint package to enable team collaboration, for users accustomed to SharePoint, Teper said.

-- The company is focusing more on connecting systems than on specifically marketing the SOA (service-oriented architecture) concept like other vendors, said LeVasseur. "We like to talk about connected systems, and SOA is how you deliver on connected systems, but the thing that enterprises care about is really connecting their enterprises and their servers, more so than architectural concepts," LeVasseur said. He added he did not want to speak on behalf of the company's architecture group, which is involved in architecture-related endeavors.

-- On Friday at the conference, Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates will demonstrate Visual Studio Tools 2005 for the Microsoft Office System.

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