Office Embraces XML

 
 
By Jason Brooks  |  Posted 2003-03-10
 
 
 

Office Embraces XML


Office Embraces XML

Make a Note of


This">

When Microsoft Corp. releases a new version of its Office productivity suite, the software tends to be somewhat more approachable, functional and Internet-connected than the last. However, when it comes to staving off enterprise defections to open-source alternatives or coaxing stalwarts of previous Office versions to upgrade, pleasant but fundamentally minor advances in Office arent going to get it done.

In eWeek Labs tests of the second beta of Microsofts Office 2003, we indeed found it more polished than Office XP in all the expected places, but what will really set Office 2003 apart when it ships this summer is its suitewide integration of XML. This should enable users and enterprises to work with their information in new, more efficient and creative ways.

In tests, we found it relatively easy to make the core applications of Office 2003 to consume and produce XML data that conformed to a variety of schemas. However, as with the extensibility features in previous versions of Office, the usefulness of Office 2003s XML-based capabilities will depend not so much on their quality but on whether companies choose to use them.

Microsoft is hoping that enterprises will deploy XML-enabled Office applications as rich-client front ends to an all-Microsoft back end, and Office 2003 is definitely designed to make this the path of least resistance.

To be sure, much of new functionality in Office 2003, such as collaboration tie-ins to Microsofts SharePoint Services or content restrictions with its Information Rights Management framework, depends on companies deploying a top-to-bottom Microsoft infrastructure.

However, this need not be so, and thats whats most compelling about this version of Office. Companies can link Office 2003 applications to any back end they choose or even use Offices applications solely as rapid design tools and opt instead for a cross-platform-friendly, Web-based front end.

Speaking of platform support, Office has become more choosy about what its willing to run on—the suite requires Windows XP or Windows 2000 Service Pack 3.

Make a Note of This

One of the more interesting components to be included in the Office 2003 launch—its not clear yet whether it will be part of Office proper or an additional purchase—is OneNote, a relatively simple but well-designed tool for taking free-form notes.

The OneNote interface looks like a notebook, with tabs that represent separate files in which notes are stored in the applications own binary format. We could also export our notes in HTML.

We found OneNote easy to use and flexible. We could type in chunks of text; paste in pictures; and, with a Tablet PC, ink in notes and drawings—all of which we could then move around on the page or organize like a bulleted outline. When we dragged images or pieces of text or images onto a OneNote page from Internet Explorer, the URL of the page from which wed dragged the data appeared below the clipping.

We could also record voice notes with our test notebooks on-board microphone, and the text we typed or the marks we made during the recording were linked to the part of the recording that had been playing when we typed it—a useful feature for searching through recordings of long meetings.

In addition, OneNote includes a nice search facility, with which we could search through handwritten notes as well as typed ones, and we could also search for bits of information wed tagged with the applications Note Flag feature.

Smooth XML Operations


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 jason_brooks@ziffdavis.com.

Executive Summary


: Microsoft Office 2003 Beta 2">

Executive Summary: Microsoft Office 2003 Beta 2

Judging from the Beta 2 code we tested, Microsofts Office 2003 should be a compelling upgrade for the enterprise, not just for its usability improvements but also for its impressive support of XML across most of the suite.

(+) Interface, connectivity and anti-spam improvements in Outlook; support for customer-defined XML schemas; recording features in OneNote.

(-) No XML in Outlook; much of the functionality in Office requires a Microsoft back end.

EVALUATION SHORT LIST

  • Corel Corp.s WordPerfect Office
  • OpenOffice.orgs OpenOffice
  • Sun Microsystems Inc.s StarOffice
  • www.microsoft.com

Latest Microsoft News:

Search for more stories by Peter Galli.

Rocket Fuel