This afternoon I was presenting at the Office Business Applications architects council with the good looking chaps on the right here. I was talking about some of the stories I've come across from our customers and partners who are using Ecma Open XML in their solutions.
I have 4 stories published recently about Ecma Open XML that illustrate what I think are 3 significant categories:
Fractal:Edge have a great visual concept for representing the drill down on data using what they call a 'Fractal Map'. The map is an add-in for Excel 2007 effectively but to store the settings for the map - like the data connection details, involves writing this to the file. This is very easy to do in Open XML and means you don't need to lug around a separate config file to travel around with the spreadsheet. They have a really good demo on their website. Being able to use Excel to store the fractalmap made their add-in highly portable which increased its adoption.
IT Workplace do the same sort of thing with their business intelligence tool Intelligencia - again, being able to write the settings into the Word document makes the add-in a native part of the document. The idea they had was to add a kind of "data tab" for Word - like you are used to seeing in Excel but for users more used to working with Word documents. Initially they had written their own client for this but this proved to be more expensive to maintain. So they created a version that was built into Word and customised the ribbon to include an Intelligencia tab for it. This lighter version was more accessible to users and because it reuse the Word UI, was less expensive to build. Passing this cost saving on to the customer meant much better adoption of the product.
Working out the history of a document, merging changes and looking for compliance violations is an area Workshare have an impressive depth of experience. Previously working with the binary format to do this was very hard not to mention fraught with danger of corrupting the file. Since Open XML, they've been able to create new versions of their products far faster, with greater precision and because poking about in the file is now supported, a much more secure and stable product. They found they were able to complete the Open XML version of their Protect Enterprise product in half the time as it took in 2003. The Protect Enterprise product intercepts emails as the go out, examines whether they comply with rules and if not, cleans them as the go out the door. This is really something best done on the server side since there are many ways to send mail via other PC's, web clients or mobile devices. Open XML enables a server side implementation of the detection and cleaning process.
Workflow should only involve your people when there is some special judgement or discernment required. Otherwise it should get out of the way. Workflow solutions are made more powerful when the server can create the documents without user involvement. The Ecma Open XML standard makes this possible in ways never before seen. Money Partners are a mortgage lender who have been able to use this to create the hundreds of documents per minute required in the mortgage application and approval process. That's impressive throughput but the huge saving has been how easy it is to update the templates when the FSA issue a change to the rules governing mortgage lending.
I expect to see some stunning solutions that construct documents and send them into workflow like this. With binary format documents, you are kind of stuck with the application that originally created the document. With an XML representation of a document it is possible to extract say the numbers from a long Word document, transform it to an Excel document and route it to the accountants. Later the server can reassemble it back into the Word document.
These three categories of solution may help to illustrate why a fully described XML solution using an open standard is such a helpful development for Microsoft Office and how partners are using it to improve their products and get them to market quicker.
A lot of my answers in the Q&A found me referring to the Open XML SDK so here is the link for you.
Posted while actually "on stage" during the panel Q&A - now that is real-time blogging :-)