Microsoft Office System 2003: Part 1 - Placing XML in the Grand "Schema" of Things

Microsoft Office System 2003 contains significant enhancements to the abilities of MS Office applications to manipulate information (structured and unstructured) using XML. Such enhancements will establish a new role for MS Office as a valuable end-user interface to Web services-enabled business processes.
Written by Timothy Hickernell, Contributor

Microsoft Office System 2003 contains significant enhancements to the abilities of MS Office applications to manipulate information (structured and unstructured) using XML. Such enhancements will establish a new role for MS Office as a valuable end-user interface to Web services-enabled business processes. However, organizations must resist the urge to view new MS Office XML-based applications as a replacement for existing presentation layers in enterprise systems.

META Trend: The convergence of structured and unstructured information management systems will continue through 2004/05, with additional overlaps among document-authoring tools, application interfaces, documents, forms, and relational database technologies. Through 2007, driven by increasing content usability/reuse, rights management, and life-cycle/records management issues, organizations will increasingly seek and deploy content management technologies addressing various unstructured content types (e.g., images, documents, reports, rich media, e-mail, product data).

As part of its forthcoming Microsoft Office release (by 3Q03) - now part of the Microsoft Office System - Microsoft will deliver key XML enhancements to Office applications and a new XML document and forms authoring tool called InfoPath 2003. Office System XML enhancements will be available to organizations in professional versions of Microsoft Office Professional Enterprise Edition 2003, Microsoft Office Professional Edition 2003, Microsoft Office Word 2003, Microsoft Office Excel 2003, Microsoft Office Access, Microsoft Office InfoPath 2003, Microsoft Office FrontPage 2003, Microsoft Office Visio Professional 2003, and Microsoft Office Visio Standard 2003. InfoPath 2003 will be available with Microsoft Office 2003 Professional Enterprise Edition or as a standalone application.

InfoPath 2003 and XML-enhanced versions of other Office System 2003 applications (most notably Word 2003 and Excel 2003) enable users to import custom XML schemas and data for manipulation (e.g., reporting, graphing, recalculation) and basic data entry. The applications support an easy-to-use, developer-friendly drag-and-drop metaphor for adding schema elements to the workspace. InfoPath, in particular, contains new controls that address semi-structured data well (e.g., repeating tables and sections), delivering on an original XML vision to seamlessly blend structured and unstructured data in a manner that blurs the lines between documents, forms, and data.

Custom schemas and data in the new Office System 2003 can be saved in XML or written to other applications via Web services or Microsoft's ADO. If additional context is desired, the full form or document structure can be appended in a Microsoft Office XML format (e.g., InfoPath XML, WordML, SpreadsheetML). XML formats for Office binaries exist in the current version of Office but have been misconstrued as XML interchange formats, which has contributed to the confusion about the real role of XML in Office Microsoft. The ability to import and export arbitrary XML, as demonstrated in Office System 2003, will become an essential requirement for desktop applications by 2006/07 to interface with Web services-enabled enterprise processes to ensure that information exchange is not dependent on vendor-specific APIs.

Professional versions of the SDK also include a new application development model for Word and Excel called smart documents. More than just an overhaul of VBA and smart tags, smart documents leverage XML to tag content and can automatically recognize similarly tagged data imported from non-Microsoft sources such as Web services-enabled enterprise systems. For example, a smart document that contains one custom customer record schema can automatically recognize customer data imported from external custom XML records and associate the proper data to the corresponding tagged fields in the smart document. Due to their reliance on XML tags, smart documents can roundtrip information with non-Microsoft automation systems, and standalone smart document files can be accessed outside of Office applications by applications such as search indexing crawlers that are capable of reading custom XML schemas. However, clients should be aware that compatibility with previous versions of MS Word and Excel requires saving smart documents to earlier versions of Microsoft binary formats. These applications do not support smart documents, irreversibly removing smart document XML structure. Smart document applications can be used only in the versions of Word 2003 and Excel 2003 that support custom-defined XML schemas.

We believe the new smart document features - particularly in Word 2003 - supply a level of document automation that finally legitimizes Word as a content-authoring tool, which can sufficiently integrate with mission-critical content management systems. This alleviates the need for elaborate custom VBA content-tagging applications and manual integration to pump content directly into enterprise content management systems. By 2H04, we expect enterprise content management vendors will fully incorporate custom XML document schema support, equally enabling roundtripping of any XML-tagged content with applications such as Word 2003.

With few XML-enabled enterprise applications deployed that can exploit the XML enhancements to the new Office System 2003 and an expected slow enterprise deployment, we believe the inclusion of these features in Office System 2003 will serve more to prepare Office for a future role as an XML-capable front end to any back-office system (Microsoft and non-Microsoft) than generating enough immediate value to initiate a generic rush to upgrade.

We recommend that organizations explore future roles for XML enhancements in Office System 2003 but avoid viewing Office System 2003 applications (especially InfoPath) as alternatives to existing presentation layers to enterprise systems (e.g., data entry screens deployed in CRM and ERP applications). Instead, Office System 2003 applications will enhance casual knowledge worker access to enterprise systems such as exception-based processing performed by employees or partners whose usage profiles do not warrant frequent system access, or whose limited access to such systems is within the context of other business processes that are not automated.

For example, although customer order history reporting is a primary process controlled by an organization’s commerce systems, a customer’s point of view is that producing an infrequent Excel spreadsheet and summarizing current orders from all its suppliers should not have to require direct access to each supplier’s commerce system or extensive electronic data integration. The customer could access each data from within an Excel 2003 smart document via Web services and import the necessary information into Excel, even if each supplier uses a slightly different schema to describe its order history.

Consequently, we recommend that organizations with mission-critical content supply chains that integrate large volumes of Word-generated original content through manual processes or custom-coded tagging consider employing smart documents to automate the transfer of tagged content into enterprise content management systems. However, organizations must examine document requirements that exist further down the content life cycle - especially those related to publishing and distribution life-cycle stages - which can require transformation from smart documents to more neutral formats such as HTML or Adobe PDF.

Business Impact: Exchange of arbitrary XML between enterprise systems and desktop productivity applications can reduce process cycle times and lower barriers to extend enterprise process automation among partners, employees, customers, and suppliers.

Bottom Line: XML enhancements to Office System 2003 represent a new opportunity for Office applications to play a larger role in mission-critical enterprise process automation, especially in content supply chains. However, organizations should avoid replacing existing enterprise system presentation layers with Office System 2003 applications.

META Group originally published this article on 16 October 2003.

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