RealTime IT News

Office Developers Hold Keys to Success

UPDATED: Microsoft's first Office Systems Developers Conference signals a new direction for its aging productivity suite. Redmond has invited ISVs to think of Office as a platform, not a set of applications.

Microsoft has identified more than $10 billion in opportunities for partners, and the conference, held in Redmond, Wash. on February 2 through 4, aims to show them how to get a piece of that opportunity.

Journalists and analysts were barred from attending, doubtless because Redmond plans to offer details for the next version, which it will build on top of Longhorn.

Microsoft will likely hype the benefits of Visual Studio 2005, now in its beta 1.1 release, but it won't deliver the bits for the beta 2 version until the end of the quarter. Early reports are that Visual Studio 2005, formerly known as Whidbey, will slash development time for the .NET framework.

"With Office 2003, InfoPath and Visual Studio tools for Office, it now takes hundreds instead of thousands of lines of code to build an application," said Ken Spencer, CTO of 32X Software and a Microsoft regional director. "With Whidbey, what took hundreds of lines will take tens of lines of code."

Making Office file formats available in XML have already enabled developers to make Office documents more integrated into applications, said Mike Sax, president of Sax Software, a company that builds XML components for ISVs.

"In Office 2003, the process was essentially to have your Web application spit out some data, then load that into a file from within Office," he said. "The level of integration in the next version will be much higher, and Office will be much more of an application platform than it has been."

In fact, he said, the next version will shift the relationship between data and applications. "With the new Office extension tools, they can write code using .NET that accesses either Web services or legacy systems directly. It switches from having a bunch of applications you move data into, to making the data be the central part, and the applications floating around that."

Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff said that, while Microsoft may be able to provide such tools, it's not clear whether enterprise users want them.

"Most of what Office is used for is still basic productivity," he said. "Certainly, there's enormous opportunity in collaboration, as companies add more and more employees spread across the country or world. The problem is that it's very unclear whether anyone knows how to do that collaboration."

Sax said that while the market may not be immediately apparent, there is definitely an opportunity for developers to get their hands on some of that $10 billion.

"When a huge opportunity for value like Office integration presents itself, the market will follow," he said. "It may take the form of new tools offered to customers or software vendors integrating Office with their vertical applications."

And Spencer of 32X thinks Office 2005 will become a "powerful strategic investment" for companies, because it will allow regular business users to take over tasks that are central to their work, relieving IT of administration and reducing bottlenecks. Instead of working on "client" PCs, their machines become interfaces to the application platform.

"Out of all our Fortune 100 customers, I don't think a single one is not investing in either SharePoint or SharePoint Portal server," he said.

The conference could hold the key to Microsoft's future. It needs a cadre of developers working with Office.

"The Office market is saturated and fragmented," said JupiterResearch analyst Joe Wilcox. "Most people that need it or want it, have it. Most people that need it or want it are sticking with the version or versions they have." (JupiterResearch and internetnews.com are owned by Jupitermedia.)

Wilcox said it's not unusual for companies to run four or five different versions of Office.

Moreover, Microsoft continues to battle the threat of open source software, as governments and educational institutions around the globe routinely evaluate the Linux OS and versions of the OpenOffice productivity suite along with Windows.

Microsoft has made motions toward increasing openness. In November 2003, it offered its XML schemas for Office under royalty-free licensing. The Office applications use schemas to describe how information is stored when documents are saved as XML files.

But Jupiter's Wilcox said that offering access to the schemas on a non-royalty basis is a far cry from true interoperability between Office and other productivity suites.

He pointed out that Microsoft doesn't participate in the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards, a body that's developing e-business standards, including OpenDocument, a standard for productivity suites. There's good reason.

"Once you have an open standard, the authoring tool no longer matters," Wilcox said. "On the other hand, if you have an accepted standard, it can create more competition and choice."

For example, the de facto digital imaging standards .GIF and .JPEG have created a thriving marketplace with lots of choices in devices and applications. "We don't have something comparable in the productivity suite market," Wilcox said, "because one company is dominant there and has control over those formats."

While Microsoft appeals to the needs of the Fortune 200, there will be room for competition, said Sam Hiser, marketing development lead for OpenOffice.org. OpenOffice develops an open-source productivity suite designed to compete with Microsoft Office.

In licensing the schemas, Hiser said, "Microsoft is just not going to be open enough. If they can be more open and meet customer needs, they'll staunch some of the erosion. But they won't staunch it all, as aggressive as they can be."

Perhaps that's why Redmond is rallying the troops of Office developers: To get them to go out and extend the market as much as they do the software itself.

Updates prior version to correct spelling of Spencer and Whidbey