Microsoft goes with the flow

At PDF, company announces Windows Workflow Foundation

What separates enterprise apps from desktop apps? Mainly, business rules and workflow. At its Professional Developers Conference (PDC) last week, Microsoft announced WWF (Windows Workflow Foundation), a Windows technology that will enable developers to stitch together Microsoft Office apps and custom-built software into composite, enterprise-class workflow applications. With WWF, Microsoft will be able to offer “the first workflow-enabled operating system,” said group product manager Scott Woodgate.

WWF is the biggest surprise in a flurry of Microsoft announcements at PDC, which kicked off with a demo of the first public beta versions of Vista and Office 12. Along with WWF, Microsoft is talking up its new Atlas Web toolkit for building AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML) applications, plus a lighter, more portable version of XAML (Extensible Application Markup Language) dubbed XAML/E (the “E” is for “everywhere”).

These introductions follow on the heels of Microsoft’s surprise distribution of its WinFS (Windows File System) beta two weeks ago. Add to that Windows Communication Foundation (formerly called Indigo), and some might view all those new APIs as one big learning curve. But Tim O’Brien, Microsoft’s group manager of platform strategy, sees them as fulfilling a promise: “PDC five years ago was really around unveiling .Net. We look at today as a realization of the dream we articulated five years ago.”

WWF is a key part of that dream. Many have long wondered how Microsoft would leverage its desktop dominance in an XML and Web services world. WWF will have the effect of making Office, which in Version 12 will support WWF, part of a distributed app dev environment. For example, with SharePoint portal server as the front end, developers will be able to exploit Outlook for routing messages and use templates in Word, Excel, and Access to create powerful, process-driven apps.

Developers can take advantage of WWF using a GUI plug-in to Visual Studio 2005 or simply edit the underlying WWF code. Changes to the code are immediately reflected in the graphical schematic, and applications can even be constructed to enable end-users to change workflows.

“With WWF, Microsoft will let programmers isolate process logic and business rules as they create composite applications,” Woodgate said.

Perhaps the biggest shocker is that Microsoft announced WWF and made a beta version available the same day -- not long after releasing the WinFS beta early. For shipping versions of these and other next-gen APIs, however, developers will have to wait until the second half of 2006, when Vista and Office 12 are also set to ship.

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