Office XP ushered into Web services world

Microsoft Corp. on Monday will execute one of its first attempts to harness the desktop as a strategic element of its Web services platform with the delivery of its Office XP Web Services Toolkit.

The new toolkit gives developers and corporate users the ability to search out multiple Web services from across the Internet and integrate them within the toolkit’s development environment. Developers will also be able to cobble together applications from those Web services within the Microsoft Office environment.

“With this (toolkit) announcement you can not just expose Web services, but now you have a place more interesting that can consume it, namely Office,” said Charles Fitzgerald, general manager of Microsoft’s .Net Platform Strategy group.

“Most discussions on Web services today involve server to server, but we think Office has an important role here in getting the data out to where it is most useful,” he said.

While he would not discuss specific details, Fitzgerald said that eventually Office XP will play a significant role in making Web services available among clients through a peer to peer (P-to-P) implementation, most likely using Groove Networks Inc.’s P-to-P environment.

“Even in simple cases of pulling data into a table, that is done now server to server. But there is no reason why that can’t be done client to client,” Fitzgerald said.

The Web Services Toolkit tie with Office is a necessary step forward if Microsoft is to modernize its client-server strategy through Web services. It also serves to broaden the Windows client’s ability to interact with non-Microsoft servers, according to some analysts.

Some also believe it is also a way for Microsoft to keep its vice-like grip on the desktop applications market.

“This announcement is Microsoft saying, ‘we have a monopoly on desktop applications, let’s ensure that by making apps like Outlook and Excel the interface to back-end systems like Siebel or SAP.’ It is using Web services to re-jigger client-server to Microsoft’s best advantage,” said Dana Gardner, research director of the Aberdeen Group Inc.’s messaging and collaboration services group in Boston, Mass.

Most analysts agree that as of late last year, Microsoft’s market share in the desktop productivity application market was close to 90 percent with close to 150 million licensed users.

An example of how users can exploit Web services is through data integration. For instance, users can build an Excel-based sales history template based on information from multiple data sources located both inside and outside the company. Such a template could take that collected data and create charts, pivot tables, and other graphical elements in order to do routine monthly or yearly analysis of the information.

One enterprise that sees some merit in Microsoft’s Office-based Web services strategy is General Motors Corp. The company is thinking of using Office XP on the desktop to link to server-based data on sales and information on the status of orders.

That information could be brought down directly into an Excel spreadsheet and integrated with data from other sources such as inventories and manufacturing. It would then be shared among sales people at a single location or across the company.

“We will primarily focus on data integration, but we will be exploring services from within Office. Sales data is an initial target, as well as internal employee data, phone books and things like that,” said Tony Scott, GM’s chief technology officer, Information Systems & Services, in Detroit, Mich.

However, GM is also in the process of evaluating several other alternatives including Sun One and a number of development tools from IBM Corp. and Oracle Corp., according to Scott.

“We will use the results of these pilots to make decisions about what tools we use going forward,” Scott said.

Some of the capabilities in the Office XP Web Services Toolkit include using UDDI to search by keyword or business for Web services that can be imported directly into the Office XP environment.

Developers and users can make sure a particular Web service they find is right for them by testing it on any XML-based service and a built-in test page. All source code generated in the Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) class is available to developers so they can see how an XML Web service is accessed using SOAP.

Once developers have found an XML-based service they want to add to a specific solution, developers can then add it as a reference with one mouse click, Microsoft reports. All the methods associated with creating an XML Web service are available in VBA through proxy classes, which are created with standard VBA classes based on the 2.0 version of the SOAP toolkit.

The Web Services Toolkit for Office XP can be downloaded for free from the Microsoft Developer Network site.

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