Microsoft unwraps new Visio tool

Microsoft Corp. on Tuesday unveiled a new version of its Visio diagramming tool that aims to enable corporate users to take better advantage of traditional Office desktop applications and also connect desktop users with server-based line-of-business data.

The newly named Microsoft Office Visio 2003, which will be a more integral part of Microsoft's Office System, will be aimed not just at the product's core technical users but at IT professionals and business users looking to use data more effectively and reduce the "manual labor" involved in pulling together information from multiple sources.

"With this release we want to broaden the usage among business users by communicating more clearly to them what the value proposition is. We think it can convince some people to widen its usage and make it a more relevant tool for the enterprise," said Jason Bunge, Visio's product manager based in Redmond, Wash.

Microsoft has four goals with Visio 2003, according to Bunge, including getting customers to use it more as a smart client in order to consume and deliver Web services, as a process management tool that can quickly document and map out how users conduct business, to better leverage a number of IT assets and investments, and to achieve greater worker productivity.

For example, whereas an HR manager might use the existing product to create and view a straight-forward organizational chart to determine an employee's position and title, with the new version managers can access server-based data, such as who is leaving the company and when, view salaries and performances of individuals, and compare that with real-time data.

"Through Web services and XML people can now take an org chart and tie it to back-end systems and pull up last month's review scores for a certain division, and maybe color code them so you can see quickly who are the strongest and weakest performers," Bunge said.

As one example of Visio being able to better leverage Office applications, Bunge said users could access a timeline within Microsoft Project and then share it with anyone on their team inside or outside the company or present a progress report to senior management.

Microsoft is currently working on a "business intelligence-based tool" that will allow customers to use Visio to pull up data from within its SQL database and graphically manipulate, dissect, and analyze the data as effectively as with some other more expensive tool, Bunge said.

"We are working on a Visio (business intelligence) tool that will allow you to manipulate data and do analysis without having to deep dive into spreadsheets and pivot tables. It's another way, we think, to show Visio can be used as something beyond a static desktop app. We will make it available as an add-on product," Bunge said.

Microsoft hopes to have an early version of the product to demonstrate within "the next month or two," according to Bunge.

Some Microsoft customers said they like the idea of building solutions using Visio as a smart client or front end to their line-of-business applications.

"We are deploying a solution built on Visio 2003 and the .Net Framework because it makes it possible for us to take advantage of Visio as a smart client. As a result, this project will allow us to better streamline our sales process and enhance the overall quality of the solutions," said Jim Cullen, senior manager of sales tools and software systems for Carrier.

The company is working on a second add-on tool to better enable process design that allows business analysts to map out a process and then have greater flexibility in using whatever tools they feel comfortable with or are best to complete the job.

A third add-on being developed would allow users, with a single mouse click, to export that mapped-out process to a BizTalk server, allowing developers to more quickly incorporate the changes into that product's automation engine, Bunge explained.

"There will be times when you will play around with the new feature within Visio, but our goal is to establish (Visio) by getting people to use it as a Project file or Word Document or BI tool so that it gets this stuff down on the desktop. Over time, we can work with users in a more hands-on fashion to get more out of a project," Bunge said.

As of Tuesday no price had been set on the product, which company officials expect to deliver in June.

Users can order a beta version at www.microsoft.com/office/preview/visio.

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