Office Server Salvo

The Office System lineup, which includes mostly client offerings such as Word, Excel and Visio, is slated to get an InfoPath server in the Office 12 2006 time frame, sources said. An InfoPath server, which would ease forms distribution among far-flung users, likely will be just one in a series of server-side offerings carrying the Office moniker.

It is no secret that Microsoft wants to refresh its Office franchise. While the desktop applications have a stranglehold on the market, many users remain on old versions--and still see no reason to upgrade a year into Office 2003's release.

By putting more capability into servers that could be tapped by the applications, Microsoft hopes to push upgrades and milk more revenue out of the Office cash cow, sources said.

They're "working hard on the notion of an Office Server," a Microsoft source said. "They won't necessarily do all the components [of Office as servers] but there may be an Excel Server, for example."

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The team already fields SharePoint and Project Servers but needs to better package capabilities so people can buy and use them easily, this source said. "If you have stuff on the back end that can be used with Word, Excel, etc., the idea is it will pull through more Office revenue and give Microsoft a reason to charge even more for clients that hit these servers."

One mid-Atlantic partner said this plan is part of Microsoft's strategy of pushing a rich client that takes advantage of its full stack. The group already has SharePoint and Content Management Servers, the partner said. "If you follow that to the logical conclusion, you'll know the group is working on more server functionality."

Said another source: "They are looking at a server-side component for InfoPath, which would address many of the current concerns about [reaching] users that are more distributed, who may or may not have InfoPath deployed."

This source expected forms-distribution glitches to be addressed with either server-facilitated Web-based forms or dynamically downloaded forms so that InfoPath client-side deployment would be less of a barrier.

InfoPath's goal is to bring back-end data into desktop applications in an electronic-form format. The problem was that InfoPath, which debuted in October 2003, is a discrete application, and routing forms around organizations is difficult.

Microsoft subsequently unveiled its Information Bridge Framework to bind Office applications closer to back-office data. The InfoPath Server "will eventually replace InfoPath and the Office Tools for Visual Studio .Net," a channel source said. It is "a full component model for Office 12 that lets you do all the InfoPath stuff but without the designer/runtime overhead so you can build complex business apps out of Office components."

Some analysts say Microsoft still hasn't experienced a bump from the whole Office System lineup.

"While the Office System [idea] is a good approach for Microsoft, it hasn't lead to any rapid sales increases," said Paul DeGroot, analyst with Directions On Microsoft, a Kirkland, Wash. researcher

"If you're going to take advantage of SharePoint portal and Infopath, you're talking about pretty scary amounts of development required to make those things really work," he said.

Microsoft Group Product Manager Dan Leach said, "It's too soon to comment on the next versions of Office System. We're focused on Office 2003."