Microsoft's decision to support HTML/XML as a native format in the next version of Office has generated a lot of confusion and questions, so I thought I'd take the time to explain this further.
First of all, the computer press is acting as if Microsoft released this information just this week, but the company has been talking about true XML and HTML support in Office for the past several months at computer trade shows. Basically, Microsoft "announced" this week at Internet World that the next version of Office for Windows--Office 99--will support a native HTML/XML file type (actually, it's an HTML-like file type that uses XML meta data to describe the Office-specific portions of the document) in addition to the existing Office file types. This means a few things, but Microsoft is not discontinuing native Office file types.
What Microsoft is doing, however, is allowing Office applications like Word and Excel to save documents in an HTML format. The current version of Office supports a feature like this, but Office 99 HTML documents will be dynamic. This means that an Excel chart embedded in a Word document that is saved as HTML will be fully editable from a Web browser or from any Office application, as long as Office 99 is on the system. This will work the same way that you can now call up Excel from Word to edit the chart.
Why do this, you ask? Intranets. Microsoft studied the way people use intranets and concluded that the Web interface of a typical intranet was too static. Once a file is saved to HTML format, it is essentially "read only": a user can look at the document but not change it. Since HTML doesn't support any sort of live editing feature, Microsoft turned to XML. And, by no small chance, XML is already supported in IE 4.0. What a coincidence (OK, not really).
Microsoft's Anthony J. Bay, the general manager of Microsoft's Internet Servers Business Unit, explained the HTML/XML integration recently.
"As far as features go, a lot is focused on extensions to HTML," he said. HTML will continue to exist, but XML will be the way you view much richer data around HTML. You already see in Office, across the board, the ability to save as HTML. You'll see more and more, if not all our content, be HTML-based. We will continue to keep file formats that make sense and add a lot of value; you won't see the Office file formats go away."
So here's the end result: An Office user will save, let's say, a Word document in HTML format. That file can then be opened by another Office user and edited further. In this scenario, the office drone of the near future will be able to create truly dynamic documents using Microsoft Office applications that can be distributed over the World Wide Web or local intranets.
And as Martha Stewart would say, that is a good thing