Microsoft to Give XML Bigger Role in Office

Microsoft is set to release the first beta of an Office upgrade, which will feature far greater use of XML and Web services for reporting, analyzing, importing and exporting information.

Microsoft Corp., which faces mounting competition and price pressure focused on its Office desktop productivity suite, is set to release the first beta of an Office upgrade.

Due later this year, the beta will feature far greater use of XML and Web services for reporting, analyzing, importing and exporting information—particularly in Outlook and Excel, Steven Sinofsky, senior vice president for Office, in Redmond, Wash., told eWeek.

Although many users agreed XML and Web services will become important, some said additional features for Word, Excel and Outlook are unnecessary and could add unwanted complexity.

They also said the continued high cost of the product and Microsofts onerous volume licensing plans are making them reconsider upgrading.

Tim Sagstetter, president of Kernel Software Inc., in Wausau, Wis., said Microsofts preferred upgrade cycle "appears to be two years. My preferred upgrade cycle is every four years."

According to Microsofts Sinofsky, the company plans to continue to innovate and add value to Office. That, he said, will result in greater productivity gains for users. "While we have started adding e-mail, calendaring and desktop management information in Outlook, that is going to be the No. 1 area where we are investing and innovating with Office," he said.

Making "organizational intelligence"—where XML is used to find and analyze a customers key information—available to Outlook is a key advancement Microsoft wants to make to the product, Sinofsky said.

While Smart Tags are integral to this strategy, the next level of XML support will center on a server housing a vast amount of XML information, such as a days worth of sales data or reservations, and then having tools such as Excel and Outlook able to report or analyze the information, Sinofsky said.

"Or [you could] have a Web service that allows a tool like Word to connect to a data source—say, via a URL—and do a mail merge directly from that data source," he said. "All of this will use a companys existing infrastructure and information and expose them in this standardized XML Web service manner."

As Microsoft improves support on its desktop applications, people will increasingly interact with XML from desktop or laptop computers, Sinofsky said.

However, some users are not convinced by the strategy. "I dont think this is the way to go," said Horia Tudosie, IT manager and system architect at SkyLink Travel Inc., in Toronto. "While there are chunks of data that our Office documents might use, lets not go crazy. We saw the same trend years ago with Lotus [Development Corp.] when it introduced versioning and team working."

Getting users to upgrade to the next version of Office could also be hampered by Microsofts new licensing agreements and Software Assurance program, which become effective in August. The programs commit companies to buying operating systems and application upgrades for an annual fee.

Customers who do not sign up will be charged more for software licenses when they upgrade. Both SkyLinks Tudosie and Kernel Softwares Sagstetter said they did not intend to sign up for the new licensing plan.

While declining to comment on licensing and pricing issues for the next version of Office, Sinofsky said he is evaluating the subscription model already in place for Office XP in countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Brazil. "I will then decide if this is a model we want to expand on and move forward with," he said.

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