Microsoft's forthcoming Office 2003 suite offers enterprises a promise few vendors or analysts are willing to support.
The software giant argues that organizations will realize significant business process improvements by using the Office 2003 suite as a window into back-end enterprise systems. Office 2003’s support for XML, Microsoft contends, is the key to bridging this front-end to back-end gap.
Currently available to volume buyers and due for official launch on Oct. 21, Office 2003 gives an employee using Outlook the ability to access data stored in a CRM system or to use Excel to get to an accounting system, for example.
"Businesses have invested millions of dollars in back-end systems, but employees in many cases have been unable to get those systems in the flow of their everyday work," said Dan Leach, lead product manager for Office at Microsoft.
According to Leach, users currently have to run complex queries, battling with special applications and portals to get access to enterprise data.
"We want to make it easy for employees to work with back-end systems using the tools they already know," Leach said.
But enterprise application vendors such as SAP, PeopleSoft, and Siebel Systems are far more interested in using XML for back-end integration, not to support a new front end. Tim Hickernell, vice president at Meta Group, supported this misgiving. "Those vendors focus on XML for integration between their own applications, and that is where their focus needs to be," he said.
PeopleSoft believes in making it easier to work with its applications but is taking a wait-and-see attitude when it comes to actively supporting links into Office 2003. At this point, the company does not believe such support will be a major focus area in the next year, said Brad Wilson, vice president of marketing at PeopleSoft.
"We will see how much demand our customer base brings us. If there is a lot of interest, we will gladly provide more information about how easy this is to accomplish with PeopleSoft applications," Wilson said. "But this will probably not become a huge investment area in the next 12 months."
Furthermore, Wilson believes that most PeopleSoft customers use Office applications in conjunction with their PeopleSoft systems only to access data, not to send data back into an HR or CRM system, for example.
SAP, a longtime Microsoft partner, hopes Microsoft's support for XML will improve integration between Office and SAP back-end systems — SAP users can already tie Excel to their enterprise applications.
But SAP does not expect users to switch from using portals to access data in enterprise systems to using Office.
"There is a whole industry built around portal technology today that goes way beyond a desktop productivity tool like Office. Desktop productivity suites are not perceived like portals," said Bill Wohl, a SAP representative.
Meta Group's Hickernell agreed. Support for XML in Office does make the productivity suite more valuable, but use of Office as a front end to enterprise systems would be secondary to those systems' current front ends, such as custom portals and application-specific client apps.