Those who have a lot of time on their hands can look forward to introducing Microsoft's new flagship software, Office 11, now named Office 2003. Those who haven't got time and money to burn have got some serious thinking to do.
The majority of corporations now use the Office products on their desktops together with Microsoft servers, in particular Exchange and SQL Server. None of these are outstanding products in any way, except that most other people also use them and they use proprietary features to make them work together. Exchange is a poor man's Lotus Notes and MySQL is a better buy as a database, but they don't work as well with the desktop products.
The desktop products, particularly Word, are terrible, but users have managed to come to terms with subsets and would rather have that than nothing. As a result it takes a lot to get a user to change to anything else. Microsoft themselves have faced this problem because users don't want more problems from a new version of Word, etc., and so support for the older products is removed forcing upgrades. This is the inevitable outcome of a monopoly.
The general consensus of opinion is that even Microsoft can't get away with enforcing yet another pointless upgrade to Office and so Office 2003 must demonstrate a genuine advance, and it does. It is the first step from a text system to a document system. Home users and 90% of office workers only need a simple, robust text processor, suitable for letter and note writing, single user oriented. In the corporate world documents are different; they have a long life, are multi-authored and contain critical information. Documents should be structured to ease content sensitive retrieval; content and presentation should be separated. Word is a long, long way from satisfying either of these requirements!
To progress to a document concept a standard is needed to support structuring, and that is where we have to bless first the publishing industry with SGML, and now the Internet community with XML. XML is a mark-up language, a Meta language, which allows information about the content to be added with the content itself. This has a downside in that a piece of data with its metadata is bigger than raw data, but memory, storage, etc. are cheap today; only communication overheads will suffer and that problem will disappear in the long run. Thus the new generation of office systems will naturally be XML based.
What a wonderful world it would be if we didn't have legacy systems to live with! But we do and to progress from the current Word dominated office systems to a structured world is going to be difficult. It is not just Microsoft Office that is the problem either. Few organisations have invested in document systems in the past, and those that have have been employed in specialist situations rather than general office work. The whole industry has to face the challenge of migrating from word processing (and HTML) to document systems and Office 2003 is as progressive as any other in this respect. This inevitable problem has been pointed out repeatedly for the last five years at least, but everyone has turned a blind eye to it. Not any longer! When Microsoft makes such a move then everyone must take note.
Whether Office 2003 is the right product remains to be seen and introducing it will be a painful experience, but it is an essential step in the right direction.< BR>
Martin Healey, pioneer development Intel-based computers en c/s-architecture. Director of a number of IT specialist companies and an Emeritus Professor of the University of Wales.