Few XML-enabled enterprise applications have been deployed that can exploit the XML enhancements to Office 2003, and the enterprise deployment is expected to be slow.
The inclusion of XML features is more about Microsoft preparing Office for a future role as an XML-capable front-end to any back-office system than about adding immediate value.
Microsoft's demonstrations of XML in Office 2003 have lacked sufficient focus to demonstrate a return on the investment. At times it even seems to suggest that Infopath, a new program designed to help users to gather information in dynamic forms and documents should be used as a replacement user interface for existing enterprise applications such as CRM and ERP, without regard to past investment in and customisation of these systems.
The real intent in adding the XML enhancements to Office 2003 now is because it is due for an upgrade and to prepare for future complementary back-office enhancements.
Although preparing Office ahead of time is an appropriate strategy for Microsoft, the hype being given to XML in Office 2003 is only confusing the market and damaging the company's opportunity to communicate its greater XML strategy outside Office.
Although much of the new XML functionality in Office 2003 will probably go unused initially, Infopath can add value as a lightweight forms interface tool for general enterprise processes such as human resources and IT, especially when compared to the Microsoft application most often used for these forms: Excel.
However, Infopath is a client application only and lacks workflow and forms management services that are required for robust forms automation projects. Indiscriminate use of Infopath forms by business power-users or decentralised development personnel could result in a disruption to an otherwise controlled information systems environment, causing problems with data quality and unnecessary exception handling.
These risks are reminiscent of problems that resulted from the explosive growth in the use of Microsoft Access and Excel for ad hoc and often mission-critical applications that still plague many companies.
Microsoft's strategy of not providing a "free" Infopath viewer will also limit the usability of Infopath forms across companies and complex value chains but will inevitably encourage the "pull through" of partners to use it.
Since process participants cannot be guaranteed access to the Infopath client application which is needed to access and complete forms, initial adoption will probably be limited to mostly internal use.
However, the lack of a free viewer is not an issue if Microsoft's strategy for the next 18 to 24 months is to simply to educate the market about Office's ability to provide a front-end for web services.
Users should view the XML enhancements to Office 2003 as a largely latent functionality that is awaiting complementary enhancements to other business applications. Organisations should not consider Infopath for anything but simple forms data capture and should control indiscriminate proliferation of Infopath.
Early adopters may immediately benefit from using Infopath for generic, simplistic, and ad hoc processes - if they are controlled by realistic IT development guidelines.
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John Brand is an analyst at Meta Group. Tim Hickernell, John Brand, Mike Gotta, David Yockelson, Andy Warzecha and Steve Kleynhans contributed to this article
This was first published in October 2003