New Office product to simplify forms

CEO Steve Ballmer on Wednesday unveiled a new product intended to turn Office into a data-collection tool and boost sales of the desktop software.

5 min read
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer on Wednesday unveiled a new product intended to turn Office into a data-collection tool and boost sales of the desktop software.

Ballmer introduced the product, code-named XDocs, at Gartner's Symposium and ITxpo in Orlando, Fla. XDocs is intended to make it easier for companies to generate and tabulate data using electronic forms by linking desktop documents to back-end data sources.

The product is based on Extensible Markup Language (XML), which is already a popular standard for data integration. Microsoft expects to ship XDocs in mid 2003, about the same time as the next version of its productivity suite, code-named Office 11.

With XDocs Microsoft hopes to expand on the success of collaborative tools such as SharePoint Team Services and SharePoint Portal Server and better position Office as a front end to customer relationship management (CRM) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) applications, according to the company.

Microsoft hopes XDocs will make Office more attractive to corporate buyers, in turn increasing sales of it and the Windows XP operating system. Microsoft controls more than 90 percent of the desktop application market, but sales have begun to slow.

During the dot-com boom, many companies switched to back-end data systems that could be accessed from anywhere using a Web browser. Microsoft hopes to turn XDocs into the data-retrieval mechanism most Office customers would want to use, which would enhance the value of the productivity suite. Office contributes more than one-third of Microsoft's overall revenue.

Meta Group analyst David Yockelson said XDocs is "powerful because it lets me collect up a lot of related information into a tabular format," Yockelson said. "It removes the demarcation between what a spreadsheet is, what a document is, what a form is, and how I can look at and retrieve information that would be in those things."

One usage scenario is a sales organization where the field force must input lots of disparate information as part of a sales trip, such as customers visited, client feedback or traveling expenses. Rather than use multiple tools to input the data, a salesperson "could create a hyperdocument or form to input that information once and take that XML (and use it) as the business defines," said Scott Bishop, Office product manager.

XDocs is designed to harness XML features that will be available with Office 11. Microsoft plans to make XML the main data format for Office 11 applications.

XDocs supports any XML-enabled database, such as those from Microsoft and Oracle. The new application can be used to input XML data or retrieve it from a database.

Microsoft is "building XDocs from the ground up with industry-standard XML," Bishop said. "XDocs is a hybrid tool that gives users the benefits of a traditional world processing program along with a lot of the data capture functionality of a forms package."

If successful, XDocs would increase the value of Office as an information-generating tool, something more and more businesses are interested in as they increasingly need to wring more productivity out of employees through collaboration and information sharing.

Old dog, new tricks
"The notion of compound documents--documents made up of other documents--has been around for a long time, and Microsoft has had this in its products for a long time," said Directions on Microsoft analyst Paul DeGroot. He pointed to an earlier Microsoft technology, called Object Linking and Embedding (OLE), that allows linking to one document from with another within Windows applications.

"What's new about this isn't the notion of embedding one document within another but they're coming up with a workable XML solution," DeGroot said. "There's a strong need for desktop tools that work very well with XML."

DeGroot sees XDocs as potentially important "for encouraging XML adoption. In that sense, it's a necessary product."

Microsoft also hopes to overcome some of the limitations of Web-based data entry and retrieval systems. That, say analysts, is something that not coincidentally could restore importance Office lost to thin clients during the dot-com boom.

Companies cannot always pull out the real-time information they need using Web forms and, often, hours of work are wasted when a dropped server connection stops data entry midstream. Web-based systems also are typically slower accessing data.

"In a traditional Office-type application, all of that information can be stored on the user's desktop," Bishop said. "There are some distinct advantages to moving things back to the desktop. This lets users actively participate in Web services, which until now primarily are server-to-server."

Without question, Microsoft "is trying to bring a lot of power into the Office applications to increase their value," said Meta's Yockelson.

It's uncertain when customers will get to evaluate XDocs. Microsoft would not say when the first XDocs beta, or testing version, will be available. But the company is now signing up beta testers for Office 11.

"We don't have any decisions at this point," on whether XDocs will be sold separately as some other Office products, such as Visio, or will be bundled into the productivity suite, Bishop said.

Analysts and Microsoft executives said there is no single product on the market that competes with XDocs. Some forms capabilities are similar to those found in Adobe's portable document file (PDF) format, while other aspects encompass data-retrieval and management features similar to those found in IBM's Lotus Notes and Domino Web server.

Bishop doesn't see XDocs so much as a replacement for existing products, but for "custom solutions (that) enterprises are currently leveraging." During this process, companies deal with complicated data-entry and management mechanisms, either "inputting data into the process or disaggregating it and putting it in multiple back-end systems."

As a single product, XDocs' appeal is limited, Yockelson said. But combined with SharePoint Portal Server, BizTalk Server and some other Microsoft server software, the company could create a collaborative information gathering and sharing system.

"If you take this and SPS, BizTalk and cobble things together in the right way, you would have an environment where you could glean a lot of information from," he said. "That gives you a lot of power." This could be especially important as Microsoft advances into the CRM and ERP markets, he added.

Microsoft is betting companies will find XDoc's XML capabilities useful, since it can eliminate the errors of multiple data entry and properly validate the code at the point of entry.