Smooth XML Operations

By Jason Brooks  |  Posted 2003-03-10 Print this article Print

Smooth XML Operations

Offices core applications have undergone some nice usability improvements in this version, such as a new mode to make document reading more comfortable in Word and the addition of a Web research task pane function in most of the suites parts. However, the biggest changes to Word, Excel and Access involve XML.

We could link an XML schema—one wed created ourselves or otherwise obtained—to a Word document and thereby add context to the text by associating it with the schema through the fairly simple graphical tools in Words task pane.

Using an XML schema in Excel worked much the same way, enabling us to either build our documents from an XML back end or populate an XML data source using Word or Excel as thick clients.

Companies can also use XML to make better use of the SmartTag feature in Office. In Office XP, smart tags—such as the one that could pull a stock quote from the Internet when a recognized company name was typed—could be user-defined, but they would appear in all documents, whether or not they made sense in a given document type. Now, smart tags may be associated with particular schemas.

InfoPath, an XML forms creation tool that will be new to Office in the 2003 version, will make it easier for companies to access Offices extensibility potential. InfoPath was not part of the Beta 2 package that eWeek Labs obtained for review, but the application seems promising.

XML support will be absent from one area in Office 2003: Outlook. We would like to see Microsoft provide users with a means for importing and exporting Outlook data in XML form, but this wont be included in the shipping release.

We also like the way that Ximian Inc.s Evolution groupware client stores filter and virtual folders in XML form, and wed like to see the same thing in Outlook. (For eWeek Labs Dec. 16, 2002, review of Ximians Evolution 1.2, click here.)

However, Outlook 2003 does feature other dramatic improvements over the last version—particularly where network connectivity is concerned. Outlook 2003 defaults to using a local store for mail and other data, which the application keeps in sync with Exchange as network conditions permit.

When we first fired up Outlook, it created a local store, then downloaded only the headers of the mail messages on our Exchange server, before moving on to fetching the full messages.

At every step, status bar messages kept us apprised of Outlooks actions, and when we cut our test systems connection to the network, the change was registered in Outlooks status bar, with no other jarring warning messages or software lockups, as wed come to expect in previous versions.

The Outlook interface has changed as well, with a focus on making mail reading easier, mostly through improvements to the Outlook preview pane.

When we reviewed Beta 1 of Office 2003 in November, we were disappointed to find no new tools for battling spam. This failing has been addressed in Beta 2—Outlook now includes a spam blocker that draws from work done in the MSN 8 Web client.

In tests, Outlooks spam catcher performed roughly as well as other tools weve used for this purpose, such as SpamAssassin. Outlooks spam tools also make it fairly easy to develop whitelists of users from whom mail should always be accepted and blacklists for the reverse.

Along with the rest of Office, Outlook includes various ties to Windows SharePoint Services, such as a task pane dialog for file attachments that gave us the option either of attaching our file in the usual way or creating a shared attachment in a SharePoint work space. The same task-pane-based SharePoint tools appear in Word and Excel as well, providing tight integration between Microsofts collaboration and productivity offerings.

The catch is that the system depends on an all-Microsoft infrastructure to function optimally.

Furthermore, Information Rights Management services, which are also tightly integrated with Office, require an all-Microsoft infrastructure to function at all. These content restriction services are intended to enable document owners to control the files they create with Office by restricting functions such as copying and e-mail forwarding. This functionality is relatively new, however, and some gaps exist in its implementation. For instance, the native print screen function in Windows wont work while a protected document is open, but third-party screen-grab tools—like the ones with which most graphics applications ship—will still operate.

Senior Analyst Jason Brooks can be reached at

As Editor in Chief of eWEEK Labs, Jason Brooks manages the Labs team and is responsible for eWEEK's print edition. Brooks joined eWEEK in 1999, and has covered wireless networking, office productivity suites, mobile devices, Windows, virtualization, and desktops and notebooks. Jason's coverage is currently focused on Linux and Unix operating systems, open-source software and licensing, cloud computing and Software as a Service. Follow Jason on Twitter at jasonbrooks, or reach him by email at

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