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Microsoft flexes its muscles with Office

Building off of Office and Windows, Microsoft intends to make work flow and content management pervasive--and shake up both markets.

LOS ANGELES--Microsoft plans to muscle into two markets next year, work flow and enterprise content management, using its time-tested techniques of exploiting its desktop dominance and appealing to developers.

On Wednesday, at its Professional Developers Conference here, the software giant announced two initiatives meant to grab more dollars spent on content management and work flow applications.

The company announced Windows Workflow Foundation, software plumbing that tracks the different steps in a wide range of work flow processes, such as handling the flow of one Web page to the next or passing electronic forms between two systems.

The software, which will be built into Windows Vista when the new operating system ships in the second half of next year, will be used extensively in Office 12 as well as in future versions of BizTalk and the company's Dynamics packaged applications, according to Microsoft executives.

Though company executives are cagey on packaging and pricing details, Microsoft also intends to provide enterprise content management capabilities with Office 12, which will be available in the second half of next year as well.

Both initiatives have the potential to shake up the competitive landscape in markets where there are several specialized vendors.

"It's the classic Microsoft approach, where they come in 10 years after the fact in work flow and enterprise content management and they commoditize it," said John Rymer, an analyst at Forrester Research. "They don't invent things--they popularize them."

Windows Workflow Foundation is a Windows programming model and base work flow "engine," which Microsoft is encouraging third-party vendors to use in their own products. Microsoft executives said existing work flow providers can set themselves apart from the software giant by offering things such as industry-specific versions and end-user oriented tools.

Larger infrastructure software providers IBM, Oracle, BEA Systems and Sun Microsystems are also investing in software related to work flow.

Similarly, in enterprise content management, Microsoft will compete against specialized vendors, such as Documentum and FileNet, and larger software providers Oracle and IBM.

Steven Sinovsky, senior vice president in charge of Microsoft Office, said Office 12 will introduce enterprise content management software that will build on the company's existing Content Management Server product.

"The direction we are definitely taking is to really have a very significant upgrade of what you think of today as Content Management Server, the product--but re-architected to run on top of SharePoint" portal software, he said, declining to discuss packaging details.

Content management is one of a number of server-delivered capabilities Microsoft intends to offer in Office 12. Specifically, company executives said that server products will also deliver search, collaboration, business process work flow and business intelligence through ties to Microsoft's SQL Server 2005 database.

Combined with a new user interface in Office 12, Microsoft appears to be readying a compelling set of features with Office 12, which will make customers seriously evaluate an upgrade, said Greg DeMichillie, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft.

"From a feature content perspective, it's very impressive, and, as always, Microsoft will start to go for breadth and get a set of features that will get them the broad middle market," DiMichillie said. "They could always shoot themselves in the foot when it comes to packaging and pricing, so we'll have to see."