Pushing the .NET Envelope with Office XP and Office v. X

Although the reality of a full-feature .NET platform might be a few years away, Microsoft is clearly doing what it can to introduce various .NET-related technologies into its current products, especially the Windows product line, the company's current dominant platform. But Windows isn't the only product that Microsoft is using to preview .NET functionality. The company's best-selling Office productivity suite—with more than 300 million active users, according to the company—is also being used as a test bed for Web services. And interestingly, it isn't just Office for Windows that Microsoft is updating with .NET functionality: The company's latest Macintosh Office product, Office v. X, also points the way to the .NET future.

Obviously, Office is a mature product, with its application roots dating back to the original 1980s-era versions of Excel and Word. So the question is how do you update such applications with features that are still as new and useful as spelling and grammar checking were years ago and make customers understand the benefits?

Today, group collaboration, Internet, and networking needs are driving most new features in Office. In the past, users would work on an Office document alone and perhaps email it to a coworker. Now, teams of people often work collaboratively and simultaneously on Office documents and publish the results on public and private Web sites. So the emphasis is subtly changing from paper-based publishing to electronic publishing. A historical example: Microsoft originally designed PowerPoint as a tool to create professionally printed presentations for public display. Today, virtually all PowerPoint users deliver their presentations electronically on an overhead projector or directly from a laptop screen. Times change.

Given this evolution, the Office of the future clearly can benefit from .NET technologies. Originally, Microsoft set up a separate team to work on a .NET-only version of Office code-named Net Docs. But the company folded the Net Docs team into the main Office team last year and is combining the products for a future release. But we won't have to wait for a future Office product to get a taste of .NET. On Windows, Office XP is the first Office version to move past simple XML document compatibility and offer true extensible Web services support.

The crucial element of Office XP is Smart Tags, context-sensitive menus that appear in response to certain actions inside Office documents. Microsoft ships several useful Smart Tags with Office XP itself, including obvious ones for formatting and related tasks. But the most interesting Smart Tags so far have come from third parties that are taking advantage of the extensible Smart Tag infrastructure to make Office documents "active" and responsive to specific types of information. For example, Federal Express (FedEx) has developed a Smart Tag targeted at small-business customers who use the service constantly but don't have their own custom shipping application. The Tag connects to the FedEx eBusiness Web site and works in Word, Excel, and Outlook; if you type in the name of a package recipient that is in your Contacts list, you can access a "Ship with FedEx" option that logs you on to the FedEx site and automatically populates shipping form fields with the proper shipping information. You can also track packages in Excel, which recognizes FedEx shipping numbers. A similar service is coming soon from United Parcel Service (UPS) as well.

The FedEx and UPS examples are interesting because they bridge internal systems with the outside world. Other companies, such as Columbia Sportswear, use internal-only Smart Tags in their customer-service departments to recognize inventory and order numbers and accurately portray item availability. In short, Smart Tags are Web services that connect otherwise static documents with a wide range of outside data, keeping documents up-to-date and more useful. In December, Microsoft will release an Office XP Web Services Toolkit that will make the process of creating such services easier.

On the Macintosh, Microsoft's recently released Office v. X, which runs on Mac OS X 10.1 and newer, includes updated versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Entourage. But the suite also features an underrated new feature called Office Notifications, which displays appointments, tasks, reminders, and even Microsoft .NET Alerts in a single window, even if no Office programs are currently active. Microsoft had already released a .NET Alerts-aware version of MSN Messenger for the Macintosh, but combining this service with Office alerts is a brilliant, if somewhat obvious, way to make this feature more compelling. No doubt a similar feature will appear in the next version of Office for Windows.

But in the meantime, Office Notifications is a great way to see how these services all come together. Using Office Notifications is similar to using the Reminders feature in Office 2000/XP, and it offers the same single-window approach of its Office XP relation. But Office v. X users can also receive .NET Alerts through the Office Notifications interface, so any services those users have subscribed to—such as MSN Money stock alerts, eBay outbid reminders, or MSN Calendar alerts—will come through Office Notifications rather than the usual MSN Messenger "slice of toast," that small notification window that appears when you get an alert.

When you think about it, receiving alerts of any kind in one generic way is more useful than having different applications alert you in their own idiosyncratic ways. And Office v. X is just one example of how a Web services client can take different forms. So today, we can receive alerts through applications, through Web-based email, and on certain non-PC devices such as smart cell phones. But in the future, the range of possible target devices will be much wider. And like Windows, current versions of Office point the way to this future.

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