The workflow technology, dubbed WinOE, will be generally available first as an add-on for the .NET Framework and "Whidbey" version of Visual Studio in mid 2006 and later in the year for the Longhorn version of Windows and Office 12.
The Windows orchestration (WinOE) code, built from the ground up by Microsoft's BizTalk team, is a set of high level XML schemas, .NET classes, application programming interfaces (APIs) and workflow components that will allow Visual Studio 2005 developers create business processes and human-to-human workflow processes.
Microsoft will also have an add-on service available for the Longhorn client and server version of Windows in 2006 and 2007 and will make its fleet of applications including Office 12 and the next Sharepoint Portal Server "WinOE-aware," several sources said.
"WinOE is the next evolution of orchestration, workflow engine that will work across all Microsoft products," said one partner who declined to be named. "It's a set of XML schemas, APIs and objects that provide building blocks for building workflow-enabled software and it'll create a number of opportunities for partners."
The code has been under development for some time and will be released for general beta testing during the second half and released mid next year. Sources said Microsoft expects to have an updated version of the WinOE code ready for the Longhorn Windows client in 2006 and server in 2007.
WinOE eventually will be embedded as a transparent "plumbing service" in the operating system but initially it will be provided as an add-on service for Windows like Windows SharePoint Services and Windows Digital Rights Management Services, sources added.
Office 12 and the next SharePoint Portal Server are targeted to be the first two "WinOE-aware" applications available in 2006 and are designed to work together. yet many other Microsoft client and server applications in the Longhorn era -- including Content Management Server, CRM, Microsoft Business Solutions applications and BizTalk -- will also be WinOE-enabled, the sources said. Microsoft currently provides workflow in a variety of forms, namely in BizTalk, its enterprise application integration (EAI) platform that incorporates the BizTalk Orchestration Engine.
Additionally, rudimentary workflow features are also embedded in Content Management Server, InfoPath, Exchange, CRM and MBS Great Plains Applications, but these capabilities -- such as the workflow designer in Exchange -- haven't been widely deployed to date.
Last year, Microsoft executives acknowledged that they were trying to put WinOE-based technologies into the upcoming Longhorn operating system. But Microsoft's WinOE technology, which borrows from the concepts and functionality of BizTalk but was built from scratch, will be far more reaching and accessible to developers than the orchestration technology currently in BizTalk, sources said.
Sources said WinOE, which provides management of business logic between applications and systems, is deemed "critical" for web services, Office 12 and Microsoft's MBS efforts because it will enable business process re-engineering, business process automation and business process management on the Microsoft platform.
"Workflow is becoming more critical especially as logic is exchanged between applications and systems and Microsoft wants to expose workflow functionality through Office and other business applications, not just BizTalk," said the source. "Workflow technology from Microsoft is going to become as commonplace for managing logic as database technology is for storing and managing data."
One potential upside of a consistent framework would be to ease workflow between the various now-disconnected parts of Microsoft's portfolio. Currently, for example, it is no small feat to get Microsoft CRM and Microsoft Great Plains accounting to work well together. If the products ran the same workflow, that would be eased, solution providers said.
"It is easier for me now to connect J.D. Edwards to MS-CRM than it is for me to do the same with Great Plains and MS-CRM," said one source close to Microsoft based in the Northwest who has knowledge of Microsoft's plans.
One ISV claimed WinOE will provide roughly 50 percent of the functionality needed by customers so there will be plenty of opportunities for partners to add value to the Microsoft workflow building blocks and framework.
"They're providing a lot of APIs and assemblies and putting it out there raw," said Scott Tattrie, Senior Research Director at Captaris, a workflow ISV based in Bellevue, Wash. "It's an opportunity for us to continue to extend how we integrate with all Microsoft platforms including CMS, SharePoint and Exchange. We'll take advantage of the underlying workflow capabilities of Microsoft."
The next version of BizTalk 2006, code named Pathfinder and due to go into beta by the end of the year, will continue to use the existing original orchestration engine based on Visio but its successor -- due in 2008 -- will use the new WinOE orchestration technology, sources said.
One BizTalk programmer noted in his weblog, for example, that the version of BizTalk beyond BizTalk 2006 will include the "combination of human, application and trading partner workflow into a single programming paradigm."
Microsoft confirmed that WinOE is a broad effort but declined to discuss details about its architecture or availability or future plans for BizTalk.
Microsoft plans to offer up a limited number of Workflow Wizards in its WinOE-enabled applications and users of Office 12 will be able to create rules within Outlook to set up workflows out-of-the box, sources said. But most of the human-to-human workflow and business process automation will be developed by third party ISVs and solution providers.
That's why Microsoft is handing the XML schemas and APIs for developer testing first. Like other Whidbey technologies, Avalon and WinFX, WinOE requires Visual Studio 2005, code-named Whidbey, which is due to ship this summer. The finished WinOE code will appear roughly a year after Whidbey hits the market but before Longhorn ships, sources said.
Another Midwest partner said word out of Redmond is that while the guts of WinOE are set -- and already field-tested from within BizTalk Server 2004 -- the company has to sort out user interface concerns. "They have to get that figured out because the interface will have a big impact on adoption," said another source who wished to remain anonymous.
The software giant will enable WinOE to accept inputs from BPEL (Business Process Execution Language) based applications and will enable developers to extend and co-author XML schemas with Microsoft.
One ISV that provides application software for SharePoint expects it will help grow his business. "We expect the new workflow plumbing to be all there with WinOE and we plan to build hooks into it for our solutions and workplace," said William Rogers, President of CorasWorks, McLean, Va.
Customers must use office 12 and SharePoint together in order to exploit WinOE, sources said.
One Microsoft solution provider said partners have been yearning for a single workflow offering from Microsoft. "I think that a single Microsoft Workflow engine that would work with all of the servers and clients and biz apps would be a great product," said Andy Vabulas, CEO of IBIS, a Microsoft Gold Certified Partner in Norcross, Ga. "Microsoft partners need this."
Microsoft said BizTalk Server provides workflow currently for EAI, B2B and BPM needs and will continue to provide the functionality necessary for these scenarios.
The company acknowledged the WinOE framework will enable workflow to be more broadly available across the company's product line but declined to elaborate on the framework of future versions of BizTalk.
"There is great interest in a common workflow framework for use across Microsoft technologies. Through common workflow services, codenamed WinOE, we are looking at ways to utilize some of the workflow concepts in BizTalk Server more broadly, providing a common framework for developers to design and execute workflow in applications," said Steven Martin, group product manager, Microsoft Business Process and Integration Division, in a statement. "This is still under development so it is too early to comment on specifics."