Transforming Tool for Office

XDocs to let users define XML schema, bring data-capturing capabilities to productivity suite.

Microsoft Corp. announced the development of an information-gathering tool last week that the company claims will bring robust data-capturing capabilities to its Office productivity suite.

The tool, XDocs, which is in the alpha stage of development, is a smart client. It is a hybrid information-gathering tool that blends the benefits and richness of a traditional word processing program with the data-capturing ability and rigor of a forms package, officials from the Redmond, Wash., company said.

The idea is to provide users with a set of 25 templates based on XML. Developers, third parties, corporate IT programmers and technical users could create additional templates, based on the XML schema they define, specific to their business or industry. Information would then be entered into the templates.

"That allows customers to decide, through their own schema, what that data should look like," said Scott Bishop, a Microsoft Office product manager. "And because its XML, we can then parse that data out of the document and send it to any XML-enabled back-end system, from where it can also then be retrieved. It thus complements customers existing infrastructures."

While the tool is expected to ship in the middle of next year, about the same time Office 11 is due, Microsoft officials declined to say exactly how XDocs will be released—whether it will be part of another product, such as Office, or a stand-alone product. They also declined to provide pricing details.

"It will be an Office family member. How it fits specifically is still being determined," Bishop said.

Skeptical users, however, speculated that XDocs could be a further-reaching development effort than the company has indicated. They said Microsoft could leverage XDocs across a range of product groups, from Office to enterprise resource planning, customer relationship management, accounting, database and messaging products.

A software developer in Groton, Mass., who asked not to be named, speculated that XDocs will be used as a vehicle to sell more Microsoft Web services. According to the developer, Microsoft is trying to move the software market toward a subscription basis, "and XDocs is one more arrow in the quiver, so to speak."

But others, such as Bill Coan, president of Coan and Company Inc., which develops custom templates and add-ins for corporate customers, disagreed, saying XDocs will be good for the market.

"It will do for data-driven content what desktop and Web publishing tools have done for unstructured content: allow users to capture and report structured data without relying on a host of experts," said Coan, in Hortonville, Wis.