Microsoft's launch of Office 2003 Beta 2 this week marks a transition point in the company's quest to reinvent the productivity suite as a development platform.
Beta 2 shows the integration of the company's OneNote and InfoPath collaboration tools as part of Microsoft's agenda to build out "The Office System". The plan for the pending desktop suite is to more tightly tie its functionality to the company's servers, such as SharePoint Services and the upcoming Windows Server 2003.
The latest iteration, expected to be doled out to 500,000 users, also embeds deeper support for XML, Web services, and other features such as intelligent mail and information rights management.
"We think it is important that we try to better connect people, the data they create, and their business processes," lead product manager of Office 2003 at Microsoft," Dan Leach said. "We think we can give them better visibility and control of that data," To that end, OneNote allows users to capture and organise notes, including handwritten information. InfoPath uses XML to help users pull a wide range of data together from all the Office applications into a single form that InfoPath can then use to automatically update information among multiple applications. Although both applications will be in Beta 2, officials said they had not decided whether they would bundle them into the finished suite, expected mid-year.
Furthermore, through the newly renamed Windows Share Point Services, which will be built into Windows Server 2003, Office 2003 users will be able to set up online, server-based collaborative meetings.
Clearly Microsoft has its work cut out in convincing a huge user base to embrace yet another version of Office. How users react to the new XML-laced OneNote and InfoPath applications, both being distributed widely in beta for the first time, remains to be seen.
Although those applications are designed to make it easier for users to access and share information among the traditional Office applications, some industry observers think the applications, particularly InfoPath, carry a steep learning curve.
"It will take time to get traction because people have to understand what they are being offered with all this," senior analyst at RedMonk, Stephen O'Grady, said. "And part of [that] is the educational process,"
But O'Grady and others think that in the end the steep learning curve will pay off not only for users but also for Microsoft - Office having accounted for roughly 27 per cent of the company's overall revenue and about 45 per cent of its profit in last year's fourth quarter.
"What [Microsoft wants] to do is make Office less of a commodity automation product and try to get enterprises to build it more into the fibre of the organisation, and that is where InfoPath and the XML features of Word and Excel come in," Gartner analyst, Michael Silver said. " They want people to use the data they are creating in Word and Excel and integrate it in with their business apps."
By incorporating additional XML-based capabilities along with its VBA (Visual Basic Application) tools, Microsoft is also attempting to get corporate and third-party developers to think of the upcoming suite as a development environment.
"XML and VBA should open up a lot of new possibilities in terms of how developers can architect their [desktop] apps in order to work with a range of different servers," technical product manager at Microsoft, Joe Andreshak, said. "Users have a lot of data locked up in both Word and Excel and their server apps [that] they will now be able to get at."