Microsoft seeks stronger XML ties

Microsoft Corp.’s forthcoming Office 2003 suite offers enterprises a promise few vendors or analysts are willing to support.

The software giant argues that organizations will realize significant business process improvements by using the Office 2003 suite as a window into back-end enterprise systems. Office 2003’s support for XML, Microsoft contends, is the key to bridging this front-end to back-end gap.

Currently available to volume buyers and due for official launch on Oct. 21, Office 2003 gives an employee using Outlook the ability to access data stored in a CRM system or to use Excel to get to an accounting system, for example.

Businesses have invested millions of dollars in back-end systems, but employees in many cases have been unable to get those systems in the flow of their everyday work,” said Dan Leach, lead product manager for Office at Microsoft.

According to Leach, users currently have to run complex queries, battling with special applications and portals to get access to enterprise data.

But enterprise application vendors such as SAP AG, PeopleSoft Inc., and Siebel Systems Inc. are far more interested in using XML for back-end integration, not to support a new front end. Tim Hickernell, vice-president at Meta Group Inc., supported this misgiving. “Those vendors focus on XML for integration between their own applications, and that is where their focus needs to be,” he said.

PeopleSoft believes in making it easier to work with its applications but is taking a wait-and-see attitude when it comes to actively supporting links into Office 2003. At this point, the company does not believe such support will be a major focus area in the next year, said Brad Wilson, vice-president of marketing at PeopleSoft.

Furthermore, Wilson believes that most PeopleSoft customers use Office applications in conjunction with their PeopleSoft systems only to access data, not to send data back into an HR or CRM system, for example.

SAP, a longtime Microsoft partner, hopes Microsoft’s support for XML will improve integration between Office and SAP back-end systems – SAP users can already tie Excel to their enterprise applications.

But SAP does not expect users to switch from using portals to access data in enterprise systems to using Office.

“There is a whole industry built around portal technology today that goes way beyond a desktop productivity tool like Office. Desktop productivity suites are not perceived like portals,” said Bill Wohl, a SAP representative.

With the help of Microsoft, Cooper Tire is building an XML front end to its customized tire-mold management system. Using XML forms and InfoPath, the company will be able to track the movements of molds between its various locations, said Ron Sawyer, manufacturing IT manager at Cooper Tire.

“Right now, we do not have visibility of the molds as they are in transit, and we make estimates of how long it will take for a mold to get shipped out of one plant and arrive at the other,” Sawyer said. “We are very new to using XML and wanted to stick with Office and the Microsoft tools because that is our standard.”

About 40 employees at Cooper Tire will use XML forms. The forms are opened in InfoPath and interact with a Windows Server 2000 system that sends the data on to an Oracle database, Sawyer said.

Development of the tracking system took about six weeks, according to Sawyer.

Cooper Tire has no current plans to expand its XML use to other Office applications,

Sawyer said.