I'm old enough to remember the dawn of personal computing and the boon to productivity brought on by desktop applications such as word processing and spreadsheets. It was huge, back in the early '80s, just to be able to do a simple mail merge. I'm sure Microsoft's embrace of XML-based file formats in Office 12 (set for release next year) could bring as big a sea change for business, but you wouldn't know it reading most press coverage to date.
Indeed, most of the stories since Microsoft's June 1 announcement and June 6 developer's briefing have focused on how you'll be able to salvage your .doc, .xsl and .ppt files and keep creating them for legacy apps. The short answer is that Microsoft will provide a utility to upgrade Office 2000/XP/2003 files, and Office 12 will let you 'save as' to the old binary formats. Meanwhile, far too little has been written about just what .docx, .xlsx and .pptx--the new, royalty free 'Office Open XML' formats--will let you do. The average consumer may not be interested, but businesses could save lots of time, duplicated effort and money.
Imagine creating dead-simple Office templates that could serve as front-end interfaces for complex enterprise applications and line-of-business systems. Users could create invoices or purchase requisitions without training on accounting apps or ERP systems. After typing in a name or account number, the template could connect to back-end systems and automatically extract all data available for the missing fields.
Imagine creating templates for formulaic reports or forecasts that have to be repeated monthly, weekly, daily or even hourly. Now imagine that the data could be extracted automatically and the numbers recalculated whenever you like without having to open another app or wait for the latest figures.
In the content management realm, XML will let organizations author components once and reuse them many times over for maximum efficiency. Because XML separates style from content, the same component could be reused for print, Web and mobile formats simply by applying different style sheets. And you could revise a component once and have every instance of that content updated automatically--even if it was reused in 200 different documents. Perhaps most powerful of all, you'll be able to use XQuery to semantically search for words or combinations of words with paragraphs, footnotes or abstracts, and you'll be returned just those qualifying components rather than lists of possible hits within complete documents.
All these capabilities already exist in XML, but they're vastly under-exploited, mainly because XML authoring tools are to Office what Earth is to our solar system--a tiny speck showing signs of intelligence. True, certain Office 2003 apps already support XML, but the difference between adding a little-used save-as option and making XML the default file format is akin to Microsoft's mid-'90s move to bundle the browser with the operating system.
It won't be long now before XML content will start cropping up all over the place. Add Web services and some thoughtful template development, and you have the makings of a new computing revolution.
a. Office 12 XML Formats Risky For Microsoft, Say Analysts
b. Preview: The Future of Microsoft Office: Get Information About the Next Version
c. White Paper: The Microsoft Office Open XML Formats
New File Formats for 'Office 12'
d. White Paper: The Microsoft Office Open XML Format Preview for Developers