Microsoft showcases workflow, Office 12, design tools

Microsoft Wednesday unveiled a workflow technology and a set of tools for designing graphics and user interfaces for both Web-based applications and the forthcoming Windows Vista client operating system.

In addition, the company demonstrated how it plans to integrate its enterprise content management (ECM) technology into Office 12 on the back of its SharePoint technology. Microsoft plans to discontinue its current Content Management Server 2002.

Windows Workflow Foundation is a workflow engine, a WinFX programming model and a set of tools for developers to build workflow-enabled applications.

Microsoft said the workflow technology could be used to support user-interface page flows, document-centric and human workflow, service-oriented applications, business process automation and workflow for systems management.

“We will be adding Windows Workflow Foundation in Office 12, BizTalk and Microsoft Dynamics,” said Eric Rudder, senior vice president of server and tools for Microsoft, in his opening keynote presentation on Day 2 of Microsoft’s Professional Developers Conference. “We find workflow very compelling.”

Rudder said the Beta 1 code of WWF is available today and that tight integration with Visual Studio would allow developers to build workflow-enabled applications.

Rudder also introduced a suite of design tools called Expression. These include a painting, illustration and effects tool code-named Acrylic Graphic Designer; a user-interface design tool code-named Sparkle Interactive Designer; and a layout and design tool for creating Web sites code-named Quartz Web Designer. The tools are designed to bring together application developers and designers.

Microsoft is using common file types and languages such as the Extensible Application Markup Language (XAML), HTML and ASP.Net to help designers create such design elements as 3-D content, rich text and animation and integrate those into application development work in Visual Studio 2005.

The tools are being paired with the Windows Presentation Foundation (formerly Avalon) in Windows Vista.

Rudder eventually gave up the stage to colleague Steven Sinofsky, senior vice president for Office. Sinofsky showed off SharePoint integrated with the new workflow capabilities and showed how tools in Office 12, which is expected to ship in the second half of 2006, will help users perform document management, records management and Web-content management as part of an enterprise content management (ECM) environment.

Users said that while the capabilities looked interesting the questions would be around how the system is run.

“How do you get all this installed,” says Jason Hampton, a domain architect with a large beverage company. “There is a lot going on with operations questions. How long does the information stay on the SharePoint server? Operationally to get this running could be a tough thing.” Hampton said his company would have some time to think about it since it won’t be doing a desktop refresh for about 18 months after Office 12 ships.

Regardless, Sinofsky used a rapid-fire delivery as he ran at full gallop through a number of features that will add up essentially to an enterprise content management system built with a combination of Office 12 on the desktop and SharePoint on the back end.

The ECM platform will include deeper support for XML, a common set of IT administration tools and consistent development, deployment and management tools. On Tuesday, Microsoft introduced user interface improvements that also will factor in the ECM efforts.

Sinofsky said the server investments around ECM would focus on SharePoint, and he showed how InfoPath forms, portal server, Access and Web parts can be used on the platform.

“SharePoint is at the core, and I think they are trying to move the whole thing upscale,” says Peter Pawlak, an analyst with the independent research firm Directions on Microsoft. “They are trying to make SharePoint so attractive that users will not look at plain old file server protocols such as Samba.”

Sinofsky showed a SharePoint designer tool that he said that was a new version of FrontPage and that provided designers with tools such as cascading style sheets, XSL Transformation, ASP.Net and data binding.

He created specific workflows that could be saved on the SharePoint server and re-used by other designers and developers.

“There is a lot more to come,” said Sinofsky. “We have barely scratched the surface.”

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