Does Microsoft deliver?

At the beginning of April, I attended the fourth annual InfoWorld CTO Forum in Boston and had the pleasure of moderating a panel discussion featuring Microsoft Corp.'s Jean Paoli. Jean's official title is XML Architect. He is not just any XML architect, but one of the XML architects who cowrote the XML 1.0 spec. In a nutshell, Jean's passion is the democratization of XML through Microsoft Office, bringing XML to the masses as the fundamental underpinning of Office documents, be they Word, Excel, PowerPoint, or Access.

A new product in the Office suite, InfoPath (formerly XDocs) promises to make it easy for regular users to build forms to capture information in simple XML templates, requiring no knowledge of XML on the user's part. For the first time, I'm actually excited about a new release of Office: This approaches the holy grail of XML-enabled desktop applications. A large percentage of work produced in any business is document-based, and I can envision at least a dozen applications at InfoWorld in all areas of the company that could be streamlined in this new Office environment. In that sense, the release of Office 2003 is indeed revolutionary. As jazzed as I am, though, I have some trepidation about the new release.

First, Microsoft will be releasing six different bundles of Office, and InfoPath will only be included in the top-tier Enterprise Edition. The Professional Edition, just one step below Enterprise, contains everything but InfoPath. Microsoft will have to do an amazing marketing job to get most companies to cough up the extra cash for the presumably more costly Enterprise Edition. If I were making decisions at Microsoft, I would want to get InfoPath in front of as many customers as possible.

Not only does InfoPath promise to simplify business processes that are dependent on documents, but it can ease an IT shop's development burden by replacing some Web-based front ends with something simpler and easier for users to develop and administer. As nonpower-users build forms somewhat spontaneously in InfoPath, developers can focus on building the back-end glue and making the business processes work. But only if they have the Enterprise Edition.

I can hear CFOs everywhere saying, "Do you really need this InfoPath thing, or can we save the money and get Professional Edition?" As compelling as this new release is, every nickel and dime still counts in most businesses. In fact, I spoke to the CTO of a large company who is piloting StarOffice as a complete replacement for Microsoft Office, which, across thousands of desktops, could save the company millions of dollars.

The other problem with the new release of Office 2003 is that it only runs on Windows -- which isn't surprising, but gives me pause. In a media company such as InfoWorld, Macs still dominate a substantial portion of the desktops, and the people who use them are key players in many of our document-based workflows. So "Windows-only" and "enterprisewide" become an immediate contradiction in terms for my organization and many others, I would imagine. In my conversations with other CTOs, I have noticed an increased interest in the Macintosh due to the appeal of OS X, which is unquestionably an ascendant platform. It didn't matter that much to me that development teams at Microsoft built Mac and Windows versions of Office in tandem -- until now.

On the other hand, the realization of Jean Paoli's XML vision in the beta release of Office 2003 is truly a big deal and might be the most important Microsoft release for businesses since Windows itself. I just wish that InfoPath was bundled in all business editions of Office, and that I didn't have to ghettoize my Mac users yet again. At this point, they're getting used to it.

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