Gates, Sinofsky Tout Office-As-Platform

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates spoke to about 800 ISVs and corporate developers on Friday morning, touting his company's embrace of XML and Web Services standards with its Office franchise as a good starting point for application development. With "Office itself, we're exposing more and more extensibility, all of that is done through XML,"Gates said.

There were a few news nuggets. First, Visual Studio 2005 Tools For Office System will go to second beta next month. The first beta of "VSTO" surfaced last summer with an earlier Visual Studio 2005 beta. The goal of this toolset is to narrow the learning and training gap between Office developers and Visual Studio developers, the company has said.

The new toolset would bring the benefits of managed code into a world where many developers had relied on Visual Basic Applications (VBA), Gates said.

In a demo, VSTO General Manager K.D. Hallman showed how the new toolset would enable a developer to embed an Excel spreadsheet into the Visual Studio IDE and make all the integral Excel controls and functions available in that "in situ" context. "You can drag and drop Windows controls and write to the controls, not to the [individual] cell using the new programming model in VSTO," she said.

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She also promised that developers, with this release, will be able to do database hookups much more easily than in the past using a new Wizard that would display all available databases, objects and Web services and walk the user through the connection process. "It will find the databases and figure out the connection string. You can then use F5 to open Excel and Access and populate the rows of the spreadsheet from the database. This is a RAD [rapid application development] experience," she said.

Microsoft will talk more about its tools strategy at the VSLive show in San Francisco next week.

The conference clearly was intended to promulgate the development assets of the Office System—which includes InfoPath, Information Bridge Framework and SharePoint Portal Server, as well as the standard Office applications of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook. Questions pointing to the next-generation Office 12 were deflected. Observers say Microsoft has to do a better job ensuring that the current Office 2003 gets deployed. Channel partners and end-user sources say that while many companies have licensed the product, many have yet to deploy a single bit of it. That shelfware represents a time bomb for Microsoft at a time when it is trying to move more customers to an annuity subscription model.

When one attendee indicated that PowerPoint lacked the same XML support seen in other applications, Steve Sinofsky, senior vice president of Microsoft's Information Worker Product Group, said that while the company was "well along the way" with Word and had a "good start with Excel, it looks like we haven't done much on PowerPoint. We're learning lessons and expect whatever you see from us [in XML support] is just the beginning. XML is a first-class file format."

When the questioner said those words seemed to indicate that PowerPoint in Office 12 would have more XML support, Sinofsky interjected, "I didn't say Office 12." Microsoft has kept its Office 12 plans close to its vest although executives have said the group plans to continue its 36 month upgrade cycle for Office. Office 2003 became widely available in October 2003, so Office 12 is anticipated for a 2006 release.

Microsoft executives had trouble last year even admitting that the next Office release would not require the promised Longhorn version of Windows.

The tenor of questions from the floor showed that at least some developers remain confused about the plethora of Microsoft tools at their disposal. One attendee said that each of the various desktop applications is its own toolset, then Microsoft is also fielding and Web Parts. "Which are strategic?" he asked.

Sinofsky called that a "very fair assessment and critique of the challenge Microsoft faces." He said the toolset of choice should depend on whether the developer wants to target a rich, "smart client" or a thin client.

Gates added that from his perspective a combination of HTML and rich forms, "where InfoPath is going," is a good choice for now, and in the future "InfoPath at the high level, overlying rich controls and underneath that the Avalon runtime," would be a good direction. Avalon is the presentation subsystem promised first for Longhorn and subsequently for Windows XP.

Another questioner referenced the Office client's rather hefty system requirements. Gates appeared shocked at that assessment. "I'm a little surprised you see Office as memory intensive. If you bring in a lot of runtimes ... SQL or others, those are fairly [resource intensive],' he said. But he and Sinofsky maintained that the memory requirements for the core applications are "essentially unchanged" from previous years. Gates acknowledged that long start up times can make Office "feel heavy," but said hardware improvements will alleviate that.

Microsoft's full court press comes at a time when IBM and others are pushing Eclipse-based toolsets as a viable alternative to the Microsoft Visual Studio juggernaut.

Today's event came a day after Gates issued one of his periodic customer letters touting the benefits of interoperability.

Some partners said the tone of that letter was ironic, given the company's past habit of hobbling interoperability between its software and outside offerings. "Microsoft has not been an interoperability leader," said Darren McBride, president of Sierra Computers and Training, a Reno, Nev., solution provider. "I am challenged by Outlook. It appears that Microsoft has gone to a lot of trouble not to incorporate open e-mail standards with Outlook, which would have made it possible to put other e-mail clients in front of Exchange."