Don't segment desktop XML

My vocal support for the next version of Microsoft Office has drawn heat in various quarters. Naysayers are convinced that Microsoft will find some way to cripple the XML capabilities of Word, Excel and InfoPath. I've said they're wrong.

My vocal support for the next version of Microsoft Office has drawn heat in various quarters. Naysayers are convinced that Microsoft will find some way to cripple the XML capabilities of Word, Excel and InfoPath. I've said they're wrong.

These products do XML by the book. Even more importantly, they embody a vision that's eluded the web services plumbers: people are SOAP end points too. Business processes do not exist in some separate universe in which XML packets flow untouched by human hands. We're not just input sources and output sinks. We have to be monitors and exception-handlers too. And when our ubiquitous personal productivity tools enable us to see and touch XML data, we can be.

Unfortunately, the power to see and touch XML data now seems a lot less ubiquitous than it did a couple of weeks ago. InfoPath will be bundled only with the volume-licensed Enterprise Edition of Office 2003. (It will also be available standalone.) Customer-defined schemas in Word and Excel will be supported in the Enterprise and Pro editions, but not in the Standard.

Microsoft argues that because Pro outsells Standard at retail, and because businesses prefer Enterprise, the stratification of the XML offerings is a customer-driven response. Really? I'm all for listening to customers, but I didn't hear many of them clamouring for the ability to define their own XML schemas. I suspect more than a few still have no clear idea what schemas are, how Office 2003 implements them or why they matter. As it pushes this esoteric technology into the heart of Office, Microsoft isn't asking people where they want to go today. It is leading them, and rightly so. In Office 2003, XML is much more than a file format. It lays the foundation for what Office was always supposed to become: a ubiquitous platform for business applications.

There's the rub. Microsoft now sees schema support and InfoPath as an enterprise play that might — or might not — trickle down. I think they're an enterprise play too, but I reject the trickle-down theory. The most vibrant XML applications today are coming from the grassroots up, in the form of RSS-enabled weblogs. The network of RSS producers and consumers, which is growing like gangbusters, has become a laboratory for leading technologists at IBM and Microsoft. I recently joined them in an initiative to enable transmission of full-strength user-defined XML in RSS feeds. I don't know how best to use this capability, and neither does anybody else. But I'm sure that an open network with low barriers to entry is the only way to find out.

An enterprise can't simply equip all its people with the Enterprise edition of Office and assume it will only do business with other enterprises that are so equipped. The RSS network crosses all boundaries. So does email. One of the compelling usage cases for InfoPath envisions email as the conduit for SOAP transactions in flight. Suppose you're filling out a mortgage application and need to ask your accountant for advice. Freezing that transaction in an InfoPath document and forwarding it to your accountant for advice, or even for editing, is a fabulous idea. But will the mortgage company extend its InfoPath license to you? Will you in turn extend it to your accountant? We assume that email is everywhere. For this scenario to work, InfoPath must be everywhere too.

The future of XML on the desktop is far from certain. Now is not the time to segment a market that has only just begun to grow. I hope Microsoft will reconsider. And I trust that the competition (OpenOffice) is paying attention.

Udell is lead analyst for the InfoWorld Test Centre.

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