Tuesday, March 25, 2003


Office 2003 Favorite Features: XML

I mentioned yesterday that over the next few days I wanted to give you a bit of the scoop on what I find to be the coolest new features of Office 2003, and I'll try to contain my enthusiasm to a quick overview. But I could fill an entire book...oh, wait--I already have. :) When I first began working on First Look Microsoft Office 2003 with the then-Office 11 beta, it became quickly apparent to me that this release was no simple bug-fix; it was a Big Change. A paradigm shift. A new way of looking at Office and Office-down-the-road. I think the change that will make the biggest bang and the longest echo is the full standardized support for XML (Extensible Markup Language). Now XML support in Word, Excel, and Access enables you to save your data separately from the form in which it is displayed. At first blush, that might not seem like such a big deal, but consider: This means that the same data could be used in a report, a catalog, a web page, a letter, a booklet, an article, a spreadsheet, and on and on. No retyping, fewer opportunities for error, smarter use of data, and easy exchange across platforms and among applications (Office and non-Office aps). This also gives businesses the ability to tap into data sitting unused in legacy systems and ensure that their data lives on beyond the limitations of specific application formats.

Word 2003 includes an XML Structure and tagging task pane that is easy enough to use that people who have never worked with XML before will understand how to attach a schema (the XML file that defines the structure and names the content of the XML data file) and tag content with minimal instruction; Excel 2003 provides a very cool visual mapping tool that enables you to drag-and-drop tags and work with the XML structure seamlessly. Both applications support what's called "arbitrary" or custom schemas, which enables businesses to develop their own schemas or use industry-specific schemas relevant to their particular areas. Developers will have a great opportunity to create custom schemas for specialized business applications...wish I had the time to learn to do that on a larger scale...the application possibilities would be fascinating.

Speaking of application possibilities, there are two other features are worth mentioning in relation to XML: Smart documents and InfoPath technology (okay, let's slip in the improved smart tags, too). Smart documents are specialized (here's another op for developers) documents that use XML to build intelligence into business documents, providing helps, prompts, links, and more in a customized task pane. This has huge application potential for businesses--think of the amount of additional information that could be customized directly into standard reports, data-entry screens, invoices, order forms, claims, requisitions, and more, reducing the margin for error, cutting down on help-desk calls, increasing productivity and standardizing processes. The reach and functionality of smart tags has been expanded and now developers will find them easier to create and deploy. And InfoPath technology, now also in beta, is a new application built on XML from the ground up to make smarter use of data captured in standardized business forms. Now you'll be able to use the familiar Office interface to capture all kinds of data that previously slipped through the cracks, save it as XML data, and use it in any number of applications. Pretty slick. Almost makes me wish I were a big corporation so I could really play with all these features the way I envision them. (Okay, I said almost.)

When I first began working with Office 2003, I wondered whether the main changes were more geared for large-company deployment and not so important for the little guys like me. But XML is here to stay, industry and world-wide. The support of XML in Office 2003 gives me the ability to be working in the same direction all my major large clients are headed anyway. So I figure I might as well stay out here on the cutting edge. :) Besides, the smart reuse of data--create something once and use it many times--really appeals to me as a writer. The chapter I write tomorrow can become a series of articles, marketing blurbs, brochures, presentations, and who knows? Maybe you'll see one of my quips on the side of a bus someday. The possibilities are endless. :) k

This post is obviously just a quick take of my thoughts on XML in Office 2003, but in the book I've written two chapters about XML and the related smart document, smart tag, and InfoPath technologies. If you feel so led, take a look at the book by clicking here: First Look Microsoft Office 2003.

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