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Gates Talks up Custom Office Apps

Microsoft today is expected to release an update to its Office Live Small Business services, as well as other new and updated components aimed at more tightly tying online services with the company's flagship Office productivity suite.

The announcements are slated to come during a keynote speech by chairman Bill Gates during the 2008 Microsoft Office System Developer Conference in San Jose, Calif. It will be one of Gates' last as a full-time Microsoft employee -- he is leaving his current role at the company in July to concentrate on philanthropy.

During the keynote, shipping giant FedEx is expected to demonstrate an Office plug-in called QuickShip, which it designed to provide customers with shipping services integrated into the Outlook communications client.

[cob:Related_Articles]"This gives us another point of access for our customers," Don Gibson, vice president of IT at FedEx Services, told InternetNews.com. "Getting that information inside their applications is very important."

Office applications increasingly have become a fulcrum for the company's software-plus-services vision -- including the increasing use of Office SharePoint Server to provide collaboration services "in the cloud" for Office applications.

In fact, connectivity with SharePoint Server 2007 is one of the updates added in version 2 of Office Live Small Business, Chris Bryant, senior product manager for Office Business Applications, told InternetNews.com.

Microsoft also plans today to introduce what it calls the OBA Composition Toolkit, a reference application that enables creation of enterprise mash-ups using pre-built components, Office and SharePoint Server 2007.

Version 2.0 of Office Live for Small Business -- formerly named Office Live -- will feature "new e-commerce and e-mail marketing features and advanced Web design and platform capabilities that developers can use in building solutions," according to a company statement.

The service currently has nearly 600,000 users, Microsoft said.

The new release also changes Microsoft's pricing structure for the service. Previously, the company offered two editions -- free and subscription-based. Now, all of the basic Office Live Small Business services will be free, and customers can extend those through an "à la carte" offering of additional options like increased storage and extra e-mail addresses, Bryant said.

The company also introduced a free service for developers building applications on the platform.

Microsoft has been pursuing its emerging software-plus-services strategy by means of deploying "platforms" that provide interlocking functions between applications on intelligent clients and services in the cloud – for example, services for Office users such as document storage, e-mail, and CRM capabilities provided "in the cloud." That builds on the company's long-term emphasis to customers and partners that Office itself, particularly Office 2007, is a key development platform.

Besides the updated Office services, Microsoft also announced a new Office Business Application (OBA) Sample Application Kit that shows developers how to build OBAs that work with PeopleSoft. Additionally, a second kit, Version 2 of the OBA Sample Application Kit for SAP, has been completely updated to work with Visual Studio 2008, Bryant said.

The addition of an OBA sample application kit for PeopleSoft is notable, according to one analyst.

The kit for PeopleSoft "is interesting because PeopleSoft represents a quasi-competitor," Rob Helm, director of research at analysis firm Directions, told InternetNews.com.

Meanwhile, Microsoft also announced that its BizTalk Adapter Pack has been "released to manufacturing" and is planned for general availability by March 1. The adapter pack provides a set of BizTalk Server adapters for linking applications by vendors including Siebel, SAP and Oracle into Office or other Web services clients.