Microsoft's Office Transformation

Developers explore opportunities on Redmond's new platform.

When Majestic Realty Co. began looking for tools to help its top executives extract better-quality business intelligence (BI) from its information systems, it first considered implementing a traditional BI solution. But the Los Angeles-based real estate developer eventually turned to a software integrator, which built the functionality and reporting capabilities Majestic needed on an unexpected platform: Microsoft Office.

Microsoft is making its biggest push yet to establish Office as a development platform. To make the model stick, the Redmond software giant must convince third-party developers and enterprise coders alike that Office is the right foundation for a whole new class of composite business apps.

The shift comes as Microsoft faces new challenges on the desktop and in the cloud. High-profile nemesis Google Inc. is making market headway with its recently upgraded online office suite, Google Apps. In February, Adobe Systems Inc. released its long-anticipated Adobe Integrated Runtime (AIR), which enables developers to use familiar Web technologies to build cross-platform desktop applications (see "Adobe Releases AIR Runtime").

The OBA Model
The solution Majestic implemented is an early example of a Microsoft Office Business Application (OBA), an emerging application model heralded at last month's first public Office System Developer Conference (ODC). (See the March 1, 2008 news story, "Gates Packs Office.") Developed by Irvine, Calif.-based Neudesic LLC, it uses the Office Excel spreadsheet as the user interface over SharePoint Server 2007 to access information through SQL Server 2005 and Oracle's JD Edwards EnterpriseOne 8.12 database management systems.

"We started out looking for a better solution for executive reporting," says Aezel Corteza, Majestic's technical project manager. "Since then, we've realized that we actually built this foundation, not only to provide executive reporting, but also to provide information to our workers. It's become a foundation for our business."

Daz Wilkin, program manager in Microsoft's platform strategy group, sees the Majestic OBA as a case study for the structure of this emerging application category.

"Office on the client, SharePoint Server as the business-productivity tier, line-of-business or services running in the data center; and instead of reacting to keep the business running, Aezel gets to spend her time actually making the business run better," Wilkin says.

Conference Call to Developers
Majestic implemented the Neudesic OBA last summer, but it wasn't until last month at the ODC that Microsoft sounded the public call to software developers it hopes to sell on the idea of building similar composite business applications. The first public event of its kind, the ODC drew about a thousand coders to San Jose, Calif.

"Almost half of ISVs and IT developers worldwide are using the Microsoft Office system to build business applications, because Microsoft Office is such an effective way to unlock business data stored in back-end systems," Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates told ODC attendees during his conference keynote.

He added that "making Office into a platform is very important to us," and assured his audience that Office will be part of "a very ambitious agenda in the future."

Radical as it might appear, Microsoft's Office-as-a-platform strategy is a logical next phase in the ongoing evolution of the product, says Forrester Research Inc. analyst John Rymer.

"Office is a saturated market," he says, "so where does Microsoft go to continue generating revenue? It has to sell licenses that support custom applications in addition to its own applications. In addition, people have long used the Office apps to create apps, and Microsoft has continually improved their facilities for custom development."

The ODC event was "a critical-mass type of thing," says Jay Paulus, Microsoft's lead product manager for Windows .NET Server. "We've reached this point with Office 2007, with all the new platform capabilities and all the new tooling support, but we still need to build awareness. It's hard to move that word 'Office.' It's such a big brand. It's like trying to convince people that 'Coke' means something else."

An Acronym at Work
Paulus' point is resonating with others. For example, Gabor Cselle, vice president of engineering at Xobni Corp. ("inbox" spelled backward and pronounced "ZAHB-nee"), admits that he hadn't even heard the term "OBA" until recently.

"I have to say, it's not a term I hear a lot right now," he says. "Most people say that they're 'developing for Outlook,' or 'we're building a plug-in for Outlook.' But I expect that to change."

And yet an OBA is exactly what Cselle's 2-year-old, 15-person, San Francisco-based startup is developing. The Xobni Insight e-mail manager, on display during the ODC Gates keynote, is an add-on for Microsoft Outlook designed to provide fast e-mail search, automatic phone number discovery and threaded-conversation tracking, among other features. Gates characterized Xobni Insight, which is still in private beta, as "the next generation of social networking" that will leverage the data in e-mail to help users better manage their relationships.

Gabor Cselle, Vice President of Engineering, Xobni Corp. "Yes, we're certainly building an OBA ... But our purpose with this initial product is also to reach out to other platforms and other e-mail clients on the desktop."
Gabor Cselle, Vice President of Engineering, Xobni Corp.

"Yes, we're certainly building an OBA," Cselle says. "And it makes sense for us to do that. But our purpose with this initial product is also to reach out to other platforms and other e-mail clients on the desktop, and even Web mail. We've gained a lot of experience from integrating with Outlook, but we're trying to extend beyond that model."

Gates pulled several OBAs into the spotlight during his ODC keynote, including a showstopper demo of the FedEx Corp. QuickShip app. David Zanca, senior VP of FedEx's e-commerce technology group, demoed the app onstage. The Office add-in is designed to leverage his company's Web services to allow users to schedule package deliveries from within Outlook 2003 and 2007. Users can generate labels, track packages, check rates and schedule pickups from clickable icons on the Outlook 2007 toolbar, called the Ribbon. The FedEx app is available as a free download.

FedEx QuickShip works within the Microsoft Outlook interface.
[click image for larger view]
FedEx QuickShip works within the Microsoft Outlook interface.

Zanca was certainly aboard the Office-as-a-platform train. "At FedEx, we believe in the power of user access," he says. "By integrating our services into the Office system, we ensure that access to printing and shipping is available wherever relevant documents or contact information is stored and edited. The Office system is an ideal platform that enables us to provide broad and comprehensive access to our services in places where people want to consume them."

Mindjet's MindManager was also featured during Gates' keynote. The San Francisco-based company's flagship product is a visual planning and collaboration tool designed to capture and organize information from a range of sources, incorporating many of the concepts associated with "mind mapping." The resulting mind map integrates icons, graphics and other elements with text into a malleable visual hierarchy.

Mindjet Corp. created the first version of MindManager nearly 13 years ago, but recently began offering it as an OBA, says Anthony Roy, the company's manager of business development and strategic partnerships. Mindjet Senior Product Manager, Bill Creekbaum, hastens to add that his company, which is a .NET shop, was integrating MindManager with Office long before anyone began touting the productivity suite as a dev platform.
"We were OBA before OBA was cool," he says.

The Fluent UI
The company quickly embraced the new model, says Roy, and Mindjet became one of the first ISVs to take advantage of the Microsoft Office Fluent user interface (Fluent UI). The Fluent UI is the version of the Ribbon that Microsoft is licensing to third-party developers. It's available royalty-free, as long as the resulting UI conforms to Microsoft's design guidelines.

"We've had incredible responses to the Fluent UI," says Roy. "Our customers are telling us that it brings more of our application closer to the user."

As of last month, the Fluent UI had been downloaded more than 2,600 times, Gates said. If Joshua Greenbaum, an independent enterprise applications consultant and former industry analyst with the Hurwitz Group, is right, most of those downloads went to ISVs.

"I see OBAs currently emerging primarily from the ISV community," he says. "They have the financial incentive to adopt this model. I think they're the ones hearing the demand from the user side."

And yet, Microsoft definitely wants in-house developers on board, and may even consider them to be more likely to build these kinds of composite apps as Office gains recognition as a platform.

"How many times have you heard someone in your organization say, 'Can you make this work more like Excel?'" Paulus asks. "Well, we say: Don't make it work like Excel; make it Excel."

One likely driver of OBA development within the enterprise: Applications that deliver their functionality through Office reduce the need for training.

"The No. 1 point of failure, when it comes to enterprise software, comes at the training stage," Greenbaum says. "It's incomplete, dated or not there at all. The genuinely great thing about OBAs, from an enterprise perspective, is that they allow you to take training off the table. And that's something that resonates."

Familiar Tools
Another potential driver is Microsoft's decision to integrate its Visual Studio (VS) Tools for Office with VS 2008.

"All of the skills that people have from developing Windows Forms applications, ASP.NET applications, Windows Presentation Foundation applications, just automatically come over to building applications that run within the Microsoft Office system," says Jay Roxe, Microsoft group product manager for Visual Studio. "You can build an OBA that integrates with SharePoint or that's pulling information straight into Outlook."

Xobni's Cselle has found Office 2007 to be a more robust platform than Office 2003 for OBA development.

"One of the problems we found as of a year ago was that most people were still using Office 2003," explains Cselle. "And though Office 2007 adoption has begun to pick up, we still had to develop for the earlier version. We had to use the old object model [COM] and the old interops, which fortunately also work with 2007."

The company also found that its beta testers were reporting more bugs in the version of Insight built for Office 2003 than the Office 2007 version.

"Microsoft kind of tightened up their plug-in model [in the later version]," Cselle says.

Because OBAs promise to provide a singularly intuitive interface for millions of users who have been using Excel, Outlook and Word for years, the model offers a unique advantage over other development platforms, Greenbaum says. "That intuitiveness trumps anything any of Microsoft's competitors might do," he says, "even in the cloud, as we've seen with Google's offerings there. Microsoft has its Live services online vision for Office, and it makes perfect sense that it will retain its value there as a familiar interface. And now you have an OBA in the cloud."

Easy OBAs

To get developers started building Office Business Applications (OBAs), Microsoft began in late 2006 to release vertical industry-focused bundles of technical resources it calls Reference Application Packs (RAPs). Each OBA RAP comes with a set of "real-world, scenario-driven" white papers, an installable code base, message schemas, a BizTalk accelerator and installation guides.

The first OBA RAP was aimed at developers of supply chain-management solutions. The company has since released OBA RAPs for retail, loan origination, CERA for health plans, price management, public sector E-Forms processing and plant-floor analytics.

A wealth of OBA information and resources can be accessed through Microsoft's Office Business Application Developer portal here. A list of the currently available OBA RAPs, and links to those resources, can be found on the MSDN Architecture Center Web site here. The MSDN site also links to an OBA team blog, case studies and a how-to center that contains more than 100 short developer examples of how to use Office 2007 as a platform.
Broad Potential
But two cows on the tracks might slow up the Office-as-a-platform express: Office 2007's new look with the Ribbon interface and the Windows Vista OS.

"The main selling point of the OBA model is that it provides this familiar end-user experience," Greenbaum observes. "And yet Office 2007 on Vista hits users with a new operating environment. It might be a great environment, depending on who you talk to, but there's an inherent contradiction here that breaks that promise of providing a familiar user experience."

Of course, as Greenbaum points out, developers don't need Office 2007 to create an OBA, but to make the most of the collaboration capabilities of SharePoint, they'll probably gravitate toward it. "I wouldn't say that Microsoft shot itself in the foot by bringing that complication into what was otherwise a simple and compelling story," he says, "but it certainly nicked a body part."

Forrester's Rymer wonders about an even more fundamental question: What exactly is an OBA?

"When we say 'OBA,' what are we really talking about?" he asks. "The definition has changed over the past couple of years. There are a lot of apps out there being called OBAs. A bunch of them are listed on the OBA Central Web site. But they're all over the map."

And yet, Rymer admits that the OBAs he's observed in the wild show a broad potential -- everything from enterprise search applications to portals, document-management apps to collaboration systems. "Any time you have an opportunity to provide an application in a form that people understand," he says, "it's a win."

One recent development Rymer points to that bodes especially well for the future of applications built on the Office System is the rapid rise of the SharePoint Server. "SharePoint has taken off like a rocket," he says. "So there are some good opportunities to use this as a foundation."

If there's a bottom line here, says Greenbaum, it's that Office-as-a-platform is a promising strategy for Microsoft. "This is a place where the whole panoply of Microsoft tools and technologies start to make tremendous sense, in terms of cross-fertilizing opportunities," he says.
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