Microsoft reboots Office
XML capabilities in Word, Excel, and InfoPath help bridge the gap between desktop documents and databases, and give enterprises a reason to upgradeFollow @infoworld
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It’s been a long time since office suites in general, and Microsoft’s in particular, generated much heat. The features that most users depend on most often were hammered out before these programs were even ported to Windows. Word’s document-handling prowess and Excel’s analytical power have matured over the years, and they are formidable assets, but the truth is the average information worker has little need of them. Résumés, memos, and e-mails are written in Word by habit, not by necessity. Excel is typically used just to format, convey, and visualize tabular data. The way to reinvigorate Office was not to pile on more elite functionality, but rather to expand the scope of routine tasks. Office 2003 does so in ways that make it, arguably, the most compelling upgrade ever.
The information flowing through Office applications and stored in Office documents represents much of the intellectual capital of the modern enterprise. After years of milking its proprietary file formats, Microsoft opted to embrace an open and universal standard: XML. As a result, Office 2003, at least in its Professional and Professional Enterprise editions, promises to help us redesign our information ecosystems so that people, desktop applications, and network services can interact in new and strategically valuable ways. It’s a bold vision. Will it change your enterprise for the better? Let’s look at what new benefits are now possible, and what it will take to achieve them.
For Jason De Lorme, CTO of Monster, the job posting and recruitment Web site, strategic data assets come in the form of résumés -- lots of them, 95 percent of which are produced in Microsoft Word. Although using Word may be an appropriate way for job seekers to create impressive
8-1/2-by-11-inch pages, it’s a lousy way to feed a database. So, most Monster users rely on the cut-and-paste method to transfer résumé content from Word documents into its database. Soon, De Lorme says, Monster will try an alternative method. Job seekers who have Word 2003 will be able to download Word templates that solve two problems at once. First, they will allow users to create, edit, and print résumés in the normal way. Second, their data will be mapped to XML elements and validated against HR-XML, the dominant XML schema in the human resources realm, allowing the information to be parsed by machines. If the experiment succeeds, job seekers will save time and everyone will benefit from high-fidelity data that can be easily exchanged and effectively searched.
Adapting Word 2003 to this kind of use takes serious effort by XML developers. Word wasn’t built for structured data entry. Its XML capability was bolted on, not built in. And even the best special-purpose XML editors present usability challenges. To smooth out the user experience, Monster’s templates protect tags that might be damaged by editing and use SmartDocs extensions to deliver context-sensitive guidance and lists of choices in Word’s task pane.
“We’re not betting the bank on this technology,” De Lorme freely admits. What is certain is that your résumé, however you provide it, eventually becomes valid HR-XML. Word’s ability to meet this requirement, and users’ comfort with the resulting experience, will need to evolve over time. But the goal is clearly in view, and the software is moving in the right direction.
All Roads Lead to XML