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.

“We want to make it easy for employees to work with back-end systems using the tools they already know,” Leach said.

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.

“We will see how much demand our customer base brings us. If there is a lot of interest, we will gladly provide more information about how easy this is to accomplish with PeopleSoft applications,” Wilson said. “But this will probably not become a huge investment area in the next 12 months.”

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.

Meta Group’s Hickernell agreed. Support for XML in Office does make the productivity suite more valuable, but use of Office as a front end to enterprise systems would be secondary to those systems’ current front ends, such as custom portals and application-specific client applications.

“XML support in Office opens new doors that will lower barriers to access in areas such as allowing business partners and customers to access data when it is not worth it to make them a full user on your system. It does not replace existing access methods,” Hickernell said.

Even that use of Office and XML might take a while because only the latest versions of enterprise applications support XML, Hickernell noted. “The lion’s share of installed enterprise systems is not XML-enabled yet. Office is a little bit ahead,” he said.

Key to realizing Microsoft’s promise, XML schemas are also currently missing from enterprise applications, said Rob Helm, research director at Directions on Microsoft, an independent research company. An XML schema, which describes the elements in an XML document, can be used to verify that content items in a document comply with the element description.

“XML by itself is just a convention for encoding data into text. A lot of Office tools for manipulating XML won’t light up until they have schemas, and those are still being developed,” Helm said.

Developing custom XML schemas is an area where Microsoft sees “a tremendous business opportunity” for itself and its partners, Microsoft’s Leach said.

But Microsoft’s hope that a user will fire up an Office application every time there is a need to access corporate data is far from becoming a reality, according to Helm. “It will only be the pioneers,” he said.

A Microsoft showcase for using the new made-for-XML InfoPath Office application instead of Word, Excel, Outlook, or PowerPoint, Cooper Tire and Rubber Co., of Findlay, Ohio, is one of those pioneers.

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.