Intranets @ the speed of 2000

Intranets @ the speed of 2000

Microsoft is laying down the ground rules for intranet collaboration in the new millenium.

By Paul Montgomery

Of all the analogies that have been used to describe the Internet, the "information superhighway" has stuck hardest, for better or worse. That Microsoft is pitching its new knowledge management infrastructure as a "digital dashboard" is no coincidence, as it has continued its embrace of the Internet with the release of Office 2000.

Both Lotus and Microsoft want to build knowledge management platforms, and Office 2000 will play an important supporting role to Microsoft Exchange in this battle.

"There are a lot of new offerings in this release. Office 2000 is a major knowledge tool for the knowledge worker," said Ross Dembecki, lead product manager for enterprise products and product manager for Exchange at Microsoft Australia.

The Outlook Today feature in Office 2000 has been nominated as the current incarnation of Microsoft's vision of the "digital dashboard."

The Office suite competes in the groupware market - in name only - with Corel Office and Lotus's SmartSuite, but its dominance on the desktop is being extended in several different directions with this release. Most of the feature list of Office 2000 was leaked almost a year ago, and it still looks like Microsoft's primary aim is to muscle in on Lotus's messaging territory with its recently updated Notes R5 groupware.

"I think Microsoft has got some ways to go in terms of establishing Exchange as a collaborative platform. It's well regarded as a messaging platform already, but we're working hard to prove that it is also a collaborative platform," Mr Dembecki said.

The new suite is "results-centred", which is Microsoft's way of saying that workflow and collaborative elements have been included for small workgroups. In practice, this means that e-mailing colleagues about a shared document is now "integrated", to use another Microsoftian term, with the creation of the document - Outlook married to Word and Excel.

In the case of Web site design, FrontPage 2000 is also integrated, but Microsoft is being a lot more ambitious with Web integration in this version, with many features to make Office an intranet publishing tool. Saving documents directly to HTML format from within Word was a feature in Office 98, but it has been overhauled for 2000, making a second attempt at solving a problem which several categories of Web publishing software tools had been invented to fix. Much work has been done to ensure that saving Word documents in the familiar ".doc" binary proprietary format is as easy as saving as HTML, to the point where the proprietary features can be embedded in HTML code within XML tags, so that they can be used when reopened (or "round-tripped") in Office.

In place of the proprietary formatting features when saving in HTML, Word 2000 uses Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), and also writes "metadata" in the Extensible Markup Language (XML) as a way of capturing information that lives in a document that doesn't have a visual representation in HTML. XML specifies and classifies the contents of the file and objects within it in a "schema".

On the collaboration side, Office turns an intranet into a "Web work space" to find information, post documents and organise projects. Desktop users can "subscribe" to a shared document and are notified by email when changes occur. Presentations created in PowerPoint can be broadcast to project teams. Features normally found in enterprise workflow applications, such as page-level check in and check out, versioning, multi-user authoring, and reporting on standard project processes, are included in FrontPage, which is only bundled with the Premium version of Office 2000.

Business intelligence also gets the Microsoft treatment in Office 2000, with easier access to data marts stored in SQL Server. Analysis of data warehouses is enabled through reporting features in Excel which make use of Microsoft's OLE DB protocol. The Access desktop database can also be used as an interface to more scalable databases, although again the emphasis is on SQL Server.