Microsoft's Office 2003 XML integration message fails to impress

Microsoft's claim that its Office 2003 suite could bridge the gap between front-end and back-end systems has aroused only mild...

Microsoft's claim that its Office 2003 suite could bridge the gap between front-end and back-end systems has aroused only mild interest among its rivals and analysts.

Office 2003, which is available to volume buyers and due for official launch next month, gives employees using Outlook the ability to access data stored in a CRM system or to use Excel to get to an accounting system, for example.

"Businesses have invested millions of dollars in back-end systems, but employees in many cases have been unable to get those systems in the flow of their everyday work," said Dan Leach, lead product manager for Office at Microsoft.

Leach said that users have to run complex queries, battling with special applications and portals to get access to enterprise data.

"We want to make it easy for employees to work with back-end systems using the tools they already know," he added.

But enterprise application vendors such as SAP, PeopleSoft  and Siebel Systems are far more interested in using XML for back-end integration, not to support a new front end.

Tim Hickernell, vice president at Meta Group, supported this misgiving. "Those vendors focus on XML for integration between their own applications, and that is where their focus needs to be."

PeopleSoft believes in making it easier to work with its applications but is taking a wait-and-see attitude when it comes to actively supporting links into Office 2003. At this point, the company does not believe such support will be a major focus area in the next year, said Brad Wilson, vice president of marketing at PeopleSoft.

"We will see how much demand our customer base brings us. If there is a lot of interest, we will gladly provide more information about how easy this is to accomplish with PeopleSoft applications, but this will probably not become a huge investment area in the next 12 months."

SAP, a longtime Microsoft partner, hoped Microsoft's support for XML would improve integration between Office and SAP back-end systems — SAP users can already tie Excel to their enterprise applications.

But SAP does not expect users to switch from using portals to access data in enterprise systems to using Office.

"There is a whole industry built around portal technology today that goes way beyond a desktop productivity tool like Office. Desktop productivity suites are not perceived like portals," said Bill Wohl, a SAP representative.

Meta Group's Hickernell agreed. Support for XML in Office does make the productivity suite more valuable, but use of Office as a front end to enterprise systems would be secondary to those systems' existing front ends, such as custom portals and application-specific client applications.

"XML support in Office opens new doors that will lower barriers to access in areas such as allowing business partners and customers to access data when it is not worth it to make them a full user on your system. It does not replace existing access methods," Hickernell said.

Even that use of Office and XML might take a while because only the latest versions of enterprise applications support XML, Hickernell noted.

XML schemas are also missing from enterprise applications, said Rob Helm, research director at Directions on Microsoft, an independent research company. An XML schema, which describes the elements in an XML document, can be used to verify that content items in a document comply with the element description.

"XML by itself is just a convention for encoding data into text. A lot of Office tools for manipulating XML won't light up until they have schemas, and those are still being developed," Helm said.

Developing custom XML schemas is an area where Microsoft sees "a tremendous business opportunity" for itself and its partners, Microsoft's Leach said.

But Microsoft's hope that a user will fire up an Office application every time there is a need to access corporate data is far from becoming a reality, according to Helm. "It will only be the pioneers," he said.

Joris Evers writes for IDG News Service 

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