Microsoft Office embraces XML
20:28, 16 Dec 2002 UTC | Eric van der Vlist

For many participants, the most memorable event of XML 2002 will be Jean Paoli's presentation of Office 11, which promises to deliver easier access to XML for hundreds of millions of work stations.

Those of us who had to connect a Windows PC to the Internet in the early 90s remember the difficulty of choosing and installing TCP/IP and the browser software necessary to access and browse the Web. At that time, Microsoft didn't believe in the future of the Internet, TCP/IP wasn't natively supported by Windows, Internet Explorer was a vague project in a laboratory, and many companies had developed market segments left uncovered by Microsoft.

This era was wiped away by a U-turn which I have always considered as a miracle from a company of the size of Microsoft: within months, Microsoft bundled a TCP/IP stack and Internet Explorer with Windows and Internet features have rapidly been added to Office. Users applauded and companies positioned on these segments either changed their strategy or disappeared - which is believed to have decreased the overall possibility for innovation in some domains.

The impression given in the presentation by Jean Paoli, co-editor of the XML 1.0 recommendation and pilot of the "XMLization" of Office, is that Microsoft is doing with XML what worked with the Internet.

XML was already well-supported by Microsoft BackOffice products from Biztalk to CMS through XML Server, but a key piece was missing - tools to let users to manipulate XML on their work stations. The issue of editing XML documents is still as difficult as the connection to the Internet in the early 90s: technically there is a solution and many XML editors are available, but the financial, organizational and human impact of deploying these tools on a large scale is considered a major obstacle by many organizations.

"XML for the masses" is the target of Office 11 and the presentation suggests that Microsoft will likely meet the target. Without major innovations (except maybe the linking of XML documents to Excel spreadsheets using XPointer references), Office 11 appears to be doing what has been announced using largely standard technologies, and to enabling the manipulation of arbitrary XML documents using customer-chosen schemas:

  • Word 11 has been transformed into a XML editor and can be used to edit any XML document, assuming you can write a W3C XML Schema for it. The presentation can be configured and the validation is done on the fly like spell-checking. A standard XML format has also been added for "regular" Word documents.
  • Excel XP already exports documents as XML. Excel 11 adds support for arbitrary documents and maybe more interesting the possibility to import values from XML documents as can be done with DBMS. The selection of the values to import is done through drag and drop and the links are stored as XPointer expressions.
  • XDocs is a new application to define and use document-oriented forms which are more similar to the forms in Lotus Notes than to those on the Web. User input may be stored together with the form in a XML document after a schema defined by Microsoft or in external XML documents with arbitrary schemas.
  • Access 11 can export its content as XML using your own schema.
  • Visio has its own XML format and can also read arbitrary XML documents and display their content in its drawings. Visio is the first Microsoft application to support SVG, and can load and save SVG documents.
  • Front Page 11 includes a WYSIWYG XSLT editor to define XSLT transformations through drag and drop.

Powerpoint is the only piece without an XML update - because of lack of time, according to Paoli. For the rest of the applications, XML can be used as a vector of information between front and back office applications but also between front office applications, creating a lot of new possibilities for users, consultants and integrators who will be able to exploit them.

"XML for the masses", the target of Microsoft, is not the same than the target of the XML editors we know today and it will probably take some time for Word to become a serious challenger. Nevertheless, many will be tempted to use a tool which is installed on so many work stations and this announcement will modify the landscape, both by reducing the size of the domains where competition, innovation and added value is currently exercised and by creating new market segments.

Often criticized for their "embrace and extend" strategy, Microsoft has finally decided to continue to play the game with XML even though the extensibility of XML opens new and unpredictable possibilities. But they need to control all the major market segments in fear that XML might give to the masses the possibility of emancipation from Microsoft's domination.

While the deployment of XML on millions of work stations is good news in the short term, it will certainly modify the landscape. The shape of the new landscape and the longer-term consequences are difficult to foresee!

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Newest comments

Re: Microsoft Office embraces XML (Guy Macon - 10:01, 20 May 2003)
Anonymous wrote: "If you think M$ is going to open up the proprietary format of Office even using XM ...
Re: Microsoft Office embraces XML (Ian - 15:26, 19 May 2003)
more about the "XMLization" of Office
Re: Microsoft Office embraces XML (Ian - 15:26, 19 May 2003)
more about the "XMLization" of Office
Re: Microsoft Office embraces XML (Kelly - 22:00, 10 Jan 2003)
Regarding the openness of XML schemas, I suggest you read James Duncan Davidson's explanation (http ...
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