The new service, called "Tools on the Web", is just the beginning of what Microsoft watchers should prepare for as the company increases its effort to transform the Internet into a channel for distributing software and services to customers - an integral part to its Web services initiative .Net.
"We're going to see much more of this," said Chris Le Tocq, an analyst for Guernsey Research in California. "Once [Microsoft] gets people used to the idea that you can - from within your document - connect to external services, then it can begin marketing all types of things."
In preparation for a much larger marketing push, Microsoft announced a number of Internet services available from within the Office XP program, similar to services already available on its Web site. Tools on the Web gives Office users access to such Internet services as electronic postage from Stamps.com and direct access to Microsoft's help desk from a pull-down menu in each of the Office programs. Access to the tools Web site is free but users must sign up for an account and pay fees for some third party services.
A scaled-down version of these Web services has been available in the past. The latest offering is available at a new Web site and is integrated directly into Office XP, allowing users to access the tools from within an Office document.
"They've had a few of these services for some time on their Web site," Le Tocq said. "I think frankly use has been limited."
Microsoft's Office 2000 offered early versions of online tools. Users have had the ability to save document preferences on Microsoft's Web site and retrieve them for use in future documents, get access to thousands of images on Microsoft's Design Gallery image bank, choose from a variety of sample documents from Microsoft's Template Gallery and make use of services from third party vendors. Microsoft's Assistance Center help desk has also been available through its Web site, enabling users to get information about Microsoft software and products, collaborate with other users on documents via e-mail and receive tips for working on Office applications.
The new Tools on the Web adds Internet services from 10 third party vendors aimed mainly at small business users, bringing Microsoft's total portfolio to 20 online services. New partners include Office Depot, which offers a direct link to order office supplies and purchase computers and software and Stamps.com, which offers its Web-based postage service through Office XP, allowing users to print postage for envelopes and packages from within a program.
Other new tools include language-translation services for e-mail, Web sites and other documents from Mendez and WorldLingo, online learning services from SmartForce, live help desk chat from Keen, electronic storage and document sharing from FileTrust, market research from Insight Express LLC, direct mail marketing services from Zairmail, customised Microsoft Outlook e-mail tools from Disappearing Inc. and a phone and e-mail address database from InfoSpace.
Microsoft also said it will unveil more details about its smart tags - a Web service included in Office XP that searches corporate intranets for Web links and other information based on keywords in a document and aggregates that information with an Office document. For instance, documents that include a stock ticker symbol, such as Microsoft's MSFT, can make use of a feature that compiles news and information about that stock symbol and integrates it directly into a Office document. Microsoft will announce more about its smart tags when Office XP is released on 31 May.
"Microsoft is beginning to offer Office as a platform," Le Tocq said, noting that the company has already started allowing third party developers to download code in order to build additional programs that run within the Office environment. "What it's doing is making the document smarter."