Microsoft revs up the 'digital dashboard'

Microsoft evolves its definition of its next-generation knowledge-worker interface, revealing yet another piece of the NGWS puzzle

When Microsoft execs discuss next-generation interfaces, they aren't just talking about speech input and handwriting recognition. They're also referring to the 'digital dashboard,' the user interface that Microsoft is attempting to propagate among so-called 'knowledge workers', one of its three main constituencies.

Microsoft group vice president Bob Muglia was expected to highlight the emerging digital dashboard platform during his Tuesday morning TechEd 2000 developer-conference keynote address.

Like just about every emerging Microsoft technology these days, digital dashboards -- and the XML-enabled Web Parts components of which the forthcoming class of dashboards will be comprised -- figure into Microsoft's pending Next Generation Windows Services (NGWS) architecture. Microsoft is slated to take the wraps off NGWS on 22 June at its Forum 2000 day in Redmond, Washington.

Knowledge workers, in Microsoft lingo, are business users -- ie people using computers in a work setting. "But almost all users have an aspect of knowledge worker about them," said Bart Wojciehowski, director of strategic marketing with Microsoft's business productivity group, the unit that oversees Office, BackOffice. Developers and home/consumer users are Microsoft's other primary customer groups.

The digital dashboard, which Microsoft officials believe will appeal to all three of these groups, provides users with customized, integrated views of the data and information they need on a daily basis. These feeds can range from simple components, like a URL-based stock ticker, to more complex ones, such as data extracted from a data warehouse, taking the form of a customized script.

Some Microsoft partners have developed prototype digital dashboards designed to show off the potential future uses of these portal-like interfaces. But Microsoft is betting that more developers will dash off to do dashboards based on the company's new Digital Dashboard Resource Kit 2.0. Microsoft introduced the DDRK 2.0 Tuesday and made it available for free download from its web site.

Wojciehowski said that Microsoft is counting on the reusable components, called Web Parts, to attract more dashboard developers. These components can take the form of anything from email and calendar functionality to training information. XML schema, or descriptions of a component's height, width, location, etc are what will make Web Parts readily customizable, explained Wojciehowski. These Web Parts can be stored almost anywhere -- from inside Windows 2000's file system, to inside a SQL Server table, to within the Web Store that will be part of Exchange 2000. The latter is the preferred repository for these components, Wojciehowski said.

Another team within Muglia's business productivity group, the BackOffice Server 2000 unit, also released some news of its own on Tuesday.

The Group "made a strategic change" in its definition of BackOffice, said Joel Schloss, product manager for BackOffice Server 2000. The group is eliminating the BackOffice family designation. Starting immediately, the generic 'BackOffice Servers' term is being superseded by 'Microsoft Servers'. Schloss said Microsoft made the change to lessen confusion around the name, as well as to be able to better encompass the myriad new server products, ranging from Applications Centre 2000, to Commerce Server 2000 and BizTalk Server 2000, which it is in the midst of testing and rolling out.

'BackOffice Server' as a single product will continue to exist. But the name will refer exclusively to the pre-packaged bundle of Windows, Exchange Server, SQL Server, Host Integration Server, Systems Management Server and Internet Acceleration and Security Server (the new name for Proxy Server) which Microsoft is aiming at branch offices and departments of larger companies.

The next release of BackOffice Server, which Microsoft has said it will call BackOffice Server 2000, is due to go to beta in late summer and ship before the end of calendar 2000, officials said.

New features in BackOffice Sever 2000, besides the latest releases of all the core component servers, include a multiserver feature (allowing users to 'virtualise' licenses across three machines); integrated setup and deployment tools; an unattended deployment capability; an Internet connectivity wizard; and new management console options.

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