Office 2003 goes big on XML and rights management

3 Sep 2003

At a special sneak preview of the forthcoming Office 2003 productivity suite due out next month, Microsoft made it clear that it is determined to bring XML application functionality and the thorny subject of digital rights management to the fore of day-to-day office tools.

“The key difference with the new generation of Office is that today’s information worker can integrate XML web services into their ordinary working day, with the ability to build new applications on top of their standard Outlook, Word and Excel documents,” explained senior software architect at Microsoft Ireland, Ian Taylor. This would allow for dynamic form building to enable web-driven expense reports, enable team-based collaborative working and encrypt documents so that they cannot be copied or forwarded from the very person whose eyes they are intended, he said.

The new bundle of Office tools are pretty much the productivity products we are all familiar with, only boasting cleverer and more interesting features than before. Due out on 21 October, the Office suite will come in the standard Professional, Small Business and OEM bundles but with additional 2003 versions of Info Path, Publisher, Front Page and Visio as well as a new application called One Note, special note-taking software aimed at tablet PC users.

Quoting Gartner research, Taylor indicated that the new Office 2003 suite will be aimed at unlocking vital but overlooked information found in the enterprise. “Employees get between 50 and 75pc of their information from other people. Yet 80pc of an enterprise’s digitised information remains on each individual’s hard drives. Most of this information is not backed up. Our aim is to take all of this wasted intelligence and bring it back into an enterprise’s knowledge base. It is clear to us that file-sharing has failed and that a central repository of information that is easy to access will be vital for people to make more important, intelligent decisions and develop team sites across the intranet and extranet that allow people to collaborate freely.”

A fundamentally new feature demonstrated by Taylor was the move to integrate digital rights management capabilities within Outlook, Word and Excel. For example, an email can be sent with 128-bit encryption that ensures that only to person to whom it is sent can read it and be constructed in such a way that once opened, cannot be copied, printed or forwarded. Similar rules can be embedded within Word documents and Excel spreadsheets to prevent specific details, figures, sentences and paragraphs from being copied or exploited. According to analysts, this new rights management technology represents one of the first steps in Microsoft’s plan to make restricted access to information a standard part of business processes. It also presents a new avenue for boosting sales at Microsoft and lock out competitors, as well as giving customers that have skipped the last few rounds of Office upgrades a new reason to upgrade.

In terms of the XML factor in the new Office 2003 suite, ordinary business users will be able to create collaborative team portals for colleagues and customers as well as building fully functional web forms for everything from logging expenses to chronicling the progress of an important work project tied into a standard base of XML applications at the backend.

Another feature highlighted by Taylor was the mobility factor. Companies that use an Exchange server to manage Outlook will be enabled to allow executives to get faster, VPN-secured access to their Outlook desktop via the internet. “Essentially, this new release brings XML from being a taboo subject restricted to the back end of most firms’ IT infrastructures to being a powerful tool in the hands of the average information worker. Furthermore, it brings rights management into the workplace,” Taylor said.

The new Office 2003 productivity suite is expected to retail at around a similar price to that of Windows XP, which currently retails around the €450 price mark, according to Microsoft Ireland business group leader Clive Ryan. Microsoft will offer several versions of the suite, starting at an attractively priced “Student & Teacher” bundling, a package for the Small Business and then scaling up to Office Professional Enterprise Edition”.

By John Kennedy