Office 2003 Accelerators: Grand vision or illusion?

Microsoft's Solutions Accelerators seem designed to showcase the capabilities of the Office 2003 platform and to accelerate upgrades from previous Office versions. More ambitiously, these Office specialty packages may serve as stepping stones toward a com
Written by Dan Farber, Inactive

Microsoft Office could be described as ubiquitous. Whether you are a fan of the suite or not, Office is the dominant workspace, a de facto software standard. Now Microsoft is using the Office 2003 platform to build what the company calls Solution Accelerators, which may be stepping stones toward a more comprehensive Office-bound suite of enterprise applications.

Short of that goal, the new Solution Accelerators seem designed to show the capabilities of the new Office suite and related Windows products in hopes of accelerating upgrades from previous versions. If the acquisition and deployment costs are reasonable, the Accelerator solutions could be a worthwhile investment for automating some business processes, especially for companies that want to squeeze more utility out of the Windows Office platform.

And, as Microsoft's array of spokespeople is quick to point out, the Accelerators are "partner friendly," spreading the money out by allowing third-party developers and integrators to customize, integrate and support the solutions.

Solution Accelerators are vaporware at this juncture, however. Anders Brown, group product manager, Microsoft Information Worker New Markets, told me the Accelerators would be rolled out in the coming months, but he wasn't forthcoming on any pricing, release date (starting in the fourth quarter), partner or detailed product information.

Nonetheless, the outline of the new initiative is fairly clear. According to Brown, the Accelerators in the queue focus on common business problems and target users in medium-size to large enterprises. The typical customer base is end users, or "information workers" in Microsoft parlance, actively engaged in using Office. The Accelerators include Office applications, additional software components, templates and guidance for architecting the solutions. It sounds a bit like the cross-application macros used in previous versions of Office.

The first seven Accelerators cover recruiting, proposal writing, Extensible Business Reporting Language (XBRL), Sarbanes-Oxley compliance, Six Sigma, business scorecards and Excel reporting.

The Accelerator for Recruiting, for example, has add-in components for various Office applications, and knits together functionality from Word, Outlook, InfoPath and the SharePoint Portal Server to automate recruiting tasks. The Accelerator for Proposals has add-in components for Word to help manage the proposal process, using the underlying XML support to assign different parts of a proposal to different people and the SharePoint Portal Server for collaboration and repurposing content, Brown said.

One of the advantages of the Office Accelerator concept is that the majority of employees who spend hours in front of a screen are familiar with Word, Excel, Outlook and other Office applications, albeit most users only tap into a small number of the features in any of the applications. Given that IT shops today are more circumspect about investing in custom applications or even packaged solutions with a long deployment and payback cycle, developing Accelerators for specific tasks that build on the Office technical and user familiarity foundations is a logical step.

Without more detailed specifications, however, it's difficult to tell who would be ideal Office Accelerator customers. If Microsoft is aiming at larger enterprises, it's likely they have some solutions in place for employee recruitment or sales proposals that are tied into full-blown enterprise software suites.

Another missing piece so far is how these Office 2003-centric solutions fit in the larger enterprise context. For example, how would the recruiting Accelerator integrate with human capital management software from PeopleSoft, Oracle, SAP or Employease. Similarly, the proposal Accelerator would need to integrate with sale force automation software. Brown responded that business partners would handle that integration, and said that Microsoft would announce partner relationships as each module is released.

I'm not sure what level or kind of integration would be supported, but it is a critical part of the equation if Microsoft is serious about larger enterprises adopting Accelerators. Islands of Office 2003 applications that don't integrate into the existing enterprise application fabric would be a recipe for failure, or at least inefficiency.

The aforementioned advantages of an Office 2003 based Accelerator solution could be significantly diminished by the high costs of integration. Microsoft should provide adapters or Web services with the Accelerators for integrating with popular ERP software. PeopleSoft, for example, has released Process Integration Packs, which are pre-built solutions for directly integrating PeopleSoft CRM with third-party applications from Oracle and SAP.

Of course, Microsoft might have a grander agenda. If the Accelerator concept gains acceptance, it's not hard to imagine a suite of Accelerators for human capital management, sales force automation or business performance management riding on top of the Office 2003 or 200x engine in the next few years.

Then the question is how the Accelerator effort would relate to the company's existing lineup of enterprise software, mostly acquired over the last few years, including Great Plains, Navision, Axapta, Solomon and Microsoft CRM. I suspect the Office Accelerators will work nicely with Microsoft's own, diverse collection of enterprise products--especially SQL Server.

At best, we are seeing a strategy in progress. Microsoft is building Accelerators to get more leverage out of the Office platform and continuing to invest in its ERP applications--mostly serving mid-sized companies, as well as different industry segments. As a customer, I would be somewhat confused as to Microsoft's overall enterprise software strategy, other than trying to dominate as it has in other categories. Should I buy into the Office 2003 Accelerator for Proposals for automating the sales process or use the module in Oracle's suite, Siebel or Navision?

The Office Accelerator might lead a wave of activity from the ground up, automating some of the more common tasks without acquiring or continuing to invest in overwrought ERP suites. This tactic has benefited smaller companies like Salesforce.com and RightNow in the CRM space. On the other hand, Accelerators require buy-in to the Office 2003 architecture, which is an investment beyond the specific applications and requires binding to the Windows operating system at a time when some are beginning to question their allegiance.

Microsoft must have the grand vision of bringing all of its business and ERP software into a common .Net and Web services framework to resolve the overlapping offerings. It's sounds more like a grand illusion at this juncture. In the meantime, we'll have to wait to see if the Office Accelerators can really accelerate business processes.

Use TalkBack to let your fellow ZDNet readers know what you think. Or write to me at dan.farber@cnet.com. If you're looking for my commentaries on other IT topics, check the archives.

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