New Office relies on buddy system

The software giant says the new version of Office, its most profitable product, could also represent a bonanza for its partners.

David Becker Staff Writer, CNET News.com
David Becker
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David Becker
4 min read
Microsoft says the new version of Office, its most profitable product, could also represent a bonanza for its partners.

The software giant is touting partner benefits as a part of its promotional message for the launch of Office System, a new family of products that's built around its widespread productivity suite.

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Some of the most significant changes in Office involve the adoption of Extensible Markup Language (XML), an increasingly widespread standard for exchanging data between computing systems. XML is expected to allow companies to tie Web services into Office applications and ease connections between Office documents and corporate computing resources.

More than 700 partners are ready to offer add-on software and services that tie into Office applications, and Microsoft said it's developing hundreds more such products.

"The XML piece is a big partner opportunity all around," said Kurt DelBene, a Microsoft vice president in the Office division. By making sure that partners offer Office-related products, the company is hoping to create more reasons for businesses and consumers to upgrade to the new software.

Backers include a variety of organizations, from established software giants such as SAP to technology newcomers like the U.S. Postal Service.

Major technology companies that support Office System include communications giant MCI, which is relying on Microsoft's new Live Meeting service as its standard approach to conducting conferences over the Web. Neal Lulofs, senior marketing manager in MCI's conferencing division, said links between Live Meeting and other Office applications and services will add value to Web conferencing and make it easier to use. "I think the integration of services is a great advantage," he said.

Electronics conglomerate Siemens is tapping into Office with OpenScape, a new enterprise application that manages the various forms of communication available to a worker. By reading calendar information that's stored in Outlook, for example, OpenScape can decide if the person is best reached via instant messaging, mobile phone or e-mail and shuttle correspondents to the right outlet. "We're trying to pull together all the different devices and services people use to stay in touch," said Adam Moise, Microsoft's alliance manager for Siemens.

Scanning for new solutions
ScanSoft, a Peabody, Mass.-based software maker that specializes in optical character-recognition technology--which scanners use to suck in text--is offering two products that tie into Office System.

OmniForm is an established product for converting paper-based forms into interactive online forms. ScanSoft has worked to connect the application to InfoPath, Microsoft's new entry in the emerging e-forms market.

Robert Weideman, ScanSoft's chief marketing officer, said both companies are counting on OmniForm to give customers a fast and easy way to get started with InfoPath. OmniForm can read existing paper or electronic forms and eliminate up to 80 percent of the meticulous formatting that's required to create an InfoPath form, according to ScanSoft.

"With InfoPath being a new format, and because it's not related to any other format like Microsoft Word, the challenge is to get people used to creating forms," Weideman said. "If there isn't a fast path into InfoPath, it's a much bigger hurdle for a company to justify from a cost perspective."

ScanSoft is also focusing on Word, the widely used word processing software in Office 2003. Its PDF Converter is a Word add-on that extracts information from documents in Adobe Systems' Portable Document Format and saves it as a Word document that can be edited and manipulated. PDF is widely used for the electronic distribution of documents, but security features in the format typically prevent recipients from copying and pasting text and performing other common word-processing functions.

A secure (and electronic) Postal seal
The U.S. Postal Service is also tapping into Word with its new "Electronic Postmark" product, which applies secure time stamps and authentication codes to verify the integrity of electronic documents. Users download a plug-in for Office that allows them to embed documents with such security data, which Web services verify. Payment is on a by-the-document basis, with rates that fall between those for First Class and Priority Mail stamps.

Bob Krause, manager of new business operations for the Postal Service, said integrating the new service--developed by New York-based AuthentiDate--with Word was essential to encourage widespread adoption.

"We've watched for a long time the emergence of all sorts of documents that are Web-enabled and came to the realization it was important for us to offer something that provides the level of safety and security people have in First Class mail," Krause said.

Office is also attracting considerable interest from Web services companies, which see integration within Office applications--as opposed to working through a Web browser--as a more efficient way to use many types of services.

Tying in external data
OneSource, which provides financial and business data, is looking to increase the use of its services through Account Intelligence, its plug-in for Word and Excel. The software will work with Office's new research view to allow document creators to access relevant OneSource data while they're working on a report or spreadsheet. Users can also enter information in a document as a live link to a OneSource data feed, which is automatically updated every time a document is opened.

"We think that by getting information to the right people within the right process, it will clearly help adoption of our product," said Brad Haigis, director of product marketing for OneSource. "The goal is to have people spending a lot more time doing their analysis and a lot less time cutting and pasting and just putting the document together."

Microsoft is also making deals with Web-based partners to spur Office adoption. In a deal it announced earlier this month, Microsoft said it will add links to Amazon.com's services from within Office applications.