Office takes over collaboration reins

Microsoft Corp., officially has passed its collaboration torch from Exchange to Office in the hopes of igniting corporate upgrades to the applications suite, but users are leery of the software giant’s plan.

At the launch this week of Office 2003 and Exchange 2003, the desktop suite took the collaboration center stage once held by Exchange, which just two years ago was the nerve center of Microsoft’s collaborative strategy.

Now Exchange has been folded into Microsoft’s Office System 2003, a collection of servers and services that form a collaboration infrastructure with Office as a front-end client. The package can create and share XML-based data, as opposed to a set of static, standalone desktop applications.

Microsoft’s chief software architect Bill Gates says Office System will drive collaboration, highlighted by XML-based data and application integration.

It’s the latest turn of events that has seen Exchange go from e-mail server to collaborative application-development platform and back again. The new strategy is intended to recharge upgrades to Office, which has seen revenue flatten over the past five years. Microsoft also says it hopes the plan will generate interest in a collection of servers that support everything from document management to instant messaging to business workflow.

The focus now is on selling Office as the foundation of customized applications to send and receive data as part of business processes, and on proving to corporations that a bulky and expensive desktop client is better than a browser.

Users and analysts say it is hard to accept and must be approached with a long-term plan.

“We’re trying to figure out how much we want to bite off,” said Tony Saxman, director of information services for the College of Business at Oregon State University in Corvalis. “There can be a fair amount of adjusting to do.” The college has been a regular early adopter of Exchange technology, but Saxman says Exchange can no longer support the hosting and housing of collaborative data and will return to being an e-mail engine.

“When we first started out, we took the collaborative features as they came out,” Saxman said. “Now we have to look at the big picture and ask what we need so we can connect to other universities and students. How do we do that?” He says a likely place to start will be SharePoint Portal Server, a document management server that is part of Office System.

Analysts say any moves should be highly orchestrated.

“You have to be aware of what is going on here,” said Chris LeTocq, an analyst with Guernsey Research. “You start something in one place and people will need software in another place. You need a collaboration roll-out plan, and it should probably be a long-term plan.”

Long term because Office System starts with Office 2003 and Windows Server 2003, then incorporates multiple back-end servers to support asynchronous and real-time data exchange. Also included will be integration middleware and a set of development tools for building XML applications based on Office.

It’s an infrastructure Microsoft is feeling pressure to create. Rival IBM Corp./Lotus is building its own collaborative infrastructure by marrying components of Notes/ Domino with its WebSphere middleware line. Competitors such as Apple Computer Inc., Corel Corp., Oracle Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc. also are jumping into the game to merge business applications and collaborative strategies.

“Microsoft had to do something to bring more cohesion to the collaboration pieces that it was cobbling together,” said Dwight Davis, an analyst with Summit Strategies Inc. “It makes sense to consolidate all the collaboration under a common client, but it seems a stretch that IT will upgrade to Office 2003 to get that collaboration.”

Others say XML integration in Office, which lets it contribute data directly to business processes, will be inviting to end users. For example, OneSource Inc., a vendor that provides company profile data, including financial information and analyst reports, now can publish its XML-based data directly to a Word document or Excel spreadsheet without the need for a custom connector.