Office does .Net

Eric Knorr offers his first take on the beta version of MS Office 11, with an eye toward the XML features that will make it an essential part of the .Net initiative.

For years everyone has said the same thing about Microsoft Office: Do I really need another fatware upgrade when I use only a tiny percentage of the features as they are?

This question has become a rallying cry ever since Microsoft implemented its reviled License 9 program, in which companies are forced to pay for Office upgrades whether they deploy them or not. At the very least, the ball is in Microsoft's court to deliver new Office versions that do more than sustain feature bloat, or brag about cosmetic changes.

After using the first beta of Office 11 for a few days, I can deliver some good news: next summer, Microsoft will ship something more than the usual upgrade.

Are the improvements worth it? Well, if you've been hard hit by the new subscription costs, Office 11 alone certainly won't console you. But any Office customer looking at implementing Web services will discover that Office 11 is blazing a trail in the right direction.

In the coming weeks I'm sure you'll hear all about the improved user interface and added features, particularly the impressive changes to Outlook. (I'm ultraconservative about modifications to programs I use every day, but I like the new Outlook a lot.) What really interests me, though, is how Microsoft is working to make Office 11 an integral part of .Net, mostly through enhanced XML integration. Here's a rundown of how the world's fattest client will help Microsoft extend its .Net scheme to the desktop:

Save it in XML. Both Word and Excel let you save documents as XML files--and open XML files, too. (Access relies on Import and Export routines.) Imagine, if you XML-ified all relevant Office documents over time, tagging paragraphs and cell ranges--an enormous amount of data now locked on desktops could become accessible to the enterprise. As some have noted, this is risky business for Microsoft, since Office's proprietary file formats are at the heart of the company's lock on the desktop. But such a move is necessary if Office is going to fit hand in glove with .Net.

Share and share alike. The SharePoint Team Services collaborative environment was first introduced in Office XP. The new SharePoint will run on top of Windows .Net Server 2003 and use SQL Server as a data store. Clearly, Microsoft plans to make SharePoint enterprise-worthy, enabling administrators to centrally manage "tens of thousands" of SharePoint intranet sites. In addition, inside Office 11 apps, you'll be able to use a Shared Workspace pane to create or search shared documents, hyperlinks, or tasks.

Word as XML editor. Word has its own, native XML schema called WordML. But Word can also open XML documents with any schema and display the XML tags--and use a side-pane view of the XML document structure to change those tags. The XML structure pane even flags violations to the document's schema. Making XML editing accessible to the masses is clearly a strategic move: The greater the adoption of XML, the more customers will come to rely on the XML-infused, ultra-integrated world of .Net.

"Web services" on demand. Why does Microsoft insist on weakening its own marketing concepts? What it calls "Web services" in Office 11 are largely rich media Web pages for Office training and support, which are hosted on and integrated into the Office help system. Big whoop. And yet one Web service isn't a yawner: The new research pane that you can call up as the rightmost column of any Office 11 app. By default, the beta let me search some Encarta sources, but administrators can configure the research pane to search any data source, remote or local, simultaneously. With a special new Smart Tag, you can use this function to drop live links to Web services sources (inventory numbers, etc.) into documents.

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get my hands on XDocs, which is poised to become the newest member of the Office family sometime next year. XDocs will enable you to create intelligent, XML-based forms that can exchange data with Office documents, XML-enabled databases, and so on. Interestingly, the forms won't be browser-based, instead requiring XDocs at runtime--which is in keeping with Microsoft's disdain for thin clients.

In short, Office 11 has the potential to be a whopper of an upgrade for companies itching to go wild with XML and Web services. And everyone else? Well, I can't get enough of the lovely new Outlook, but I wouldn't pay a year's subscription fee for it.

Are you eagerly anticipating Office 11? Or are you still mad as hell and ready to switch to StarOffice? E-mail Eric or TalkBack below.