XML and Office 2003

One of the most interesting new features in the forthcoming Office 2003, due later this year, is its support for XML, an emerging standard in data management. XML stands for eXtensible Markup Language. Though it looks similar to HTML, the language used on all web pages, XML was designed specifically as a universal way to describe data. HTML by contrast describes how data should look visually. With this article we hope to provide a brief overview of XML and how it applies to the upcoming release of Microsoft Office 2003.

XML by itself does not do anything, it simply describes the data contained within an XML document. Since everyone's data is different, there is no one standard for the XML codes; in fact everyone must make up their own XML codes. For example, consider this short XML document:

<subject>Wireless LAN</subject>
<body>Thanks again for setting up my wireless network, it works amazingly well!</body>

This note clearly has a sender, recipient, subject, and body, yet any program can access the note and display this data in its own way. Applications can even add their own XML tags, extending the original data (for example, adding a date tag to the above note).

Now think of how XML might be used to store a business's accounting data in one database, accessible by its accounting software, sales/contact management software, reporting software for use by company management, and more. Or consider a reporter who files a story using his or her choice of software applications, and has the story automatically import into print and online layouts simultaneously, including formatting. Or, a company might have the terms of a contract that is written in Word automatically import to the firm's accounting software for that client's bills.

To ensure compatibility between programs, administrators define an XML Schema Document (XSD) to provide a structured format for compliant documents to follow, for example an Excel template. Data can also be validated against rules, allowing administrators to control data entry on forms across a variety of applications. In this way XML may well become a universal method for cross-platform data sharing using plain text files.

Office 2003

Indications are that Office 11, now officially named Office 2003, will either be a release that is very important to your business, or a release to consider skipping. One major hurdle for many companies is that Office 2003 will only run on Windows 2000 or Windows XP. Users running Windows 95, 98, Me, and NT 4.0 will need to upgrade. In many cases users may find it either necessary or more cost-effective to purchase a new computer.

XML support is of course a major feature of Office 2003. Microsoft is so serious about XML that it hired one of the coauthors of the original XML specification to manage its XML initiatives. Longer term, it intends to include XML compatibility in virtually all of its software.

Microsoft will release Office 2003 in more configurations, including a Professional Enterprise edition, a Basic edition, and a Small Business edition (the Small Business version of Office XP was only available preloaded on new computers). For example, Office 2003 Basic will include only Word, Excel, and Outlook, and be available only preloaded on a new PC. Users can also purchase Office applications like FrontPage, PowerPoint, Access, and a new application, InfoPath, as stand alone products at retail or through volume licensing.

Speaking of InfoPath, this is a new Office application for designing and filling out XML-based forms. InfoPath stores data as plain text XML files, allowing for easy importing to any XML-compatible back end database or web service. The down side is that InfoPath will only be bundled with the Professional Enterprise edition of Office 2003, available only through volume licensing. However, anyone will be able to buy InfoPath as a separate application.

Some new features of Office 2003 depend on Windows Server 2003 and its updated Active Directory, for example compatibility with the shared collaboration features of SharePoint Team Services. Other features are more cosmetic, such as a new "transparent" look that many see as modeled after the Aqua interface found on MacOS X.

One thing is clear: now that Microsoft has just about perfected the basic word processor, it intends to build programs around the Office "system" and Windows Server to keep users upgrading. Since Microsoft is pushing towards a subscription-based revenue model it must continually provide a perceived value for its subscription upgrades or risk losing upgrade revenue. How successful they will be in doing this remains to be seen.

April 2003

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