Microsoft aims for integrated products

The software giant commits to delivering better cohesiveness between applications to meet the needs of a "connected" information worker.

MINNEAPOLIS--The world's largest software maker has pledged to deliver tighter integration across all its products, ranging from the client desktop to back-end enterprise-class applications.

Microsoft announced this to its 6,500 industry partners, including independent software vendors, value-added resellers and systems integrators, who gathered Friday in Minneapolis, U.S., for the three-day Worldwide Partner Conference 2005. The software vendor's partner channel, encompassing more than 600,000 partners worldwide, contributes about 98 percent of Microsoft's revenues.

Rather than simply offer customers a desktop or office productivity suite, Microsoft is moving toward a model that emphasizes the delivery of complete "office systems", said Chris Capossela, Microsoft's corporate vice-president of the information worker product management group.

"We realized that the workplace has changed dramatically compared to five years ago," said Capossela, during his keynote address on Saturday morning.

Information workers today are "always on, always connected", he said, which underscore the need for tighter integration in the company's software stack to better address this change in the business environment.

Microsoft's upcoming product releases will showcase new capabilities that will narrow the gap between the "unstructured" data and tools that office workers tap on daily, and the more structured work processes in a company's back-end business applications, he explained.

The software vendor has been creating taxonomies that define specific job roles, such as an accountant, human resource officer or general manager, and identify the applications that this job would typically require access to. With this information, Microsoft will then build capabilities into its products that allow an office worker to access any application and data he needs directly via a front-end application that he is most familiar with, such as e-mail. A marketing manager, for example, will be able to retrieve data in his company's business intelligence or customer relationship management software, directly from Outlook without having to launch those business applications.

Capossela said this new level of integration will enhance the user experience because they can now access data sitting in all these other applications, from an entry point that is already familiar to them.

According to Andy Lees, the company's corporate vice-president of server and tools marketing, Microsoft's development efforts are geared towards enabling the "new world of work"--a concept which Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates also touched on during his visit to Singapore earlier this month.

Businesses, Lees said, want to provide user access without compromising on security, as well as build a self-service infrastructure and establish policies that give IT administrators better control.

Information workers must be able to easily "find who they need, and what they need", Capossela said, noting that the next version of Microsoft's productivity suite, code-named Office 12, will support such requirements. The new release is not scheduled to go on sale until the second half of next year, but the application's first beta version will be released in the next quarter.

The upcoming productivity software will include new tools to allow organizations to better control content and processes necessary to meet government and corporate compliance standards, he added.

First glimpse of Office 12
Participants at the conference were also treated to the first public showcase of the new features in Office 12.

Capossela demonstrated on stage how a bank can take a loan application, submitted by a customer online, and move the document as an e-mail message to a loan officer's Outlook application.

Written based on Microsoft's InfoPath, the loan document can then be viewed and edited directly within Outlook itself. Companies use InfoPath to create documents or forms that support Web services protocol, extensible markup language (XML), which allows data to be shared and exchanged between different systems.

Microsoft, and its partners, face the tough challenge of convincing customers that the next version of the office productivity suite is going to be worth the upgrade.

"Our biggest competitor is this perception that old, or cloned, versions of Office are good enough," Capossela noted. "But the workplace has changed, and the old tools are no longer good enough."

Apart from Office 12, Microsoft will be releasing a wide range of new product releases in the next 18 months, or what Lees described as a "watershed year".

These new offerings include the Nov. 7 launch of Visual Studio 2005 developer tools, SQL Server 2005 database, which had previously been delayed.

Windows Server 2003 Release 2 (R2) is also scheduled for release in the next 12 months, followed by the launch of Windows Small Business Server 2003 R2 60 to 90 days later.

Another new offering is the real-time collaboration (RTC) Presence Toolkit, an engine that identifies modes of communication that a person can be reached such as instant messaging, e-mail or phone. This will be released in the next 18 months.

ZDNet Asia's Eileen Yu reported from Minneapolis, USA.