For insight into how Microsoft plans to drive upgrades of its nearly ubiquitous Office desktop application suite, talk to Jean Paoli.
While he doesn't work in Microsoft's Information Worker group, which oversees Office, Paoli does influence the development of the product. He's a co-creator of the XML data formatting standard, and as the senior director of XML architecture at Microsoft, he's involved with a wide range of products, including the development of Office 12 and the upcoming Longhorn edition of Windows.
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Earlier this week, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates said Longhorn, due in 2006, will have a new XML-based document format, code-named "Metro," that will be used to both print and share documents. Printers that support Metro will be able to render documents created in Longhorn more quickly and faithfully, while users will be able to share files without needing the application that created them.
Office is also getting a bigger dose of XML. Upcoming versions will make it easier for people with little training to automate multistep jobs, or work flows, such as processing an insurance claim. Many of these document-driven jobs today require software programmers to write code.
"In general, the work flow business is going to use a lot (of XML), and there will be more simplicity for more users because the actual document is richer," Paoli said, without discussing specific features of Office 12, scheduled for release in 2006.
"If you have millions of documents in XML, this becomes a huge business opportunity for software companies to do better," he said.
Paoli predicts that within five years, 75 percent
of new documents will be created in XML. Today, XML-formatted documents make up only a fraction of all electronic information.
XML provides a standardized way to format a document, obviating the need for application-specific formats. XML also allows people to define schema, or the information contained within a document, such as a name and address.
In the last release of its productivity suite, Office System 2003, Microsoft added the ability to store documents in XML format and to let people define their own schemas. Back-end server software such as database and packaged applications can also "read" XML documents.
With Office System 2003, Microsoft created closer links between desktop applications and server software such as its SharePoint portal ware. It also introduced an Office add-on, called InfoPath, for processing forms in company networks.
Paoli indicated that customers can expect closer ties between server and Office desktop Microsoft products. Databases--such as the forthcoming Microsoft SQL Server 2005 and those from IBM and Oracle--will be able to save data in XML format, he said.
Specifically, Paoli said he sees a growing need for tools to analyze XML data. For example, database tools could "read" the information stored in a credit approval application generated in Microsoft Word and automatically decide to move the document to the next step or reject it.
He added that Microsoft is also working on ways to ensure the security and privacy of XML-stored data. In addition, Longhorn will have a communication system called Indigo that is based completely on XML-based protocols.
"There is a lot of potential for new tools," Paoli said. "When I say tools, I mean for end users, not necessarily developers."