MS Office to become front-end option for more app users

Microsoft has tried for years to get other software vendors to use Office as the front end for their applications, according to some analysts. Now it finally appears to be making some headway.

Supply chain management vendor i2 Technologies and content management provider Interwoven last week unveiled integration pacts with Microsoft that will ultimately give users the option of accessing their applications from Office.

The deals with i2 and Interwoven came two weeks after Microsoft and SAP AG disclosed plans to jointly develop software, code-named Mendocino, that will allow Office products such as Outlook, Excel and Word to be used as front ends to SAP's ERP software.

"Getting business applications to use Office as a front end is superimportant to Microsoft. It really locks people into Office," said Michael Silver, an analyst at Gartner Inc. It also could push users to upgrade Office more frequently if a third-party application vendor supports only certain versions of the Microsoft software, he said.

But the degree to which users will take advantage of the new front-end capabilities is still unclear.

John Mallon, director of supply chain management at On Semiconductor, said at i2's user conference in Phoenix last week that he's looking forward to the day when the company's Excel users can update information in its i2 software.

On the other hand, Zeke Duge, CIO at retailer Smart & Final said that using Office as the front end for enterprise applications would create too much processing overhead.

"It's like taking an SUV to a sports car rally," he said. "It will carry a lot of stuff, but that is not the idea."

Rick Stuller, CIO at Hawaiian Electric Co, said the power company already has vendors that provide access to their applications from Excel through connector-type tools. Stuller said he's "open to what our vendors might propose." But he said he fears that further integration might tie them to Office for product interoperability, which "could be problematic in terms of product development, security issues, etc."

Microsoft's support for XML in Office 2003 opened up the software and gave other vendors the ability to connect data on the desktop with information in back-end systems, said Dan Leach, a group product manager at Microsoft. The sort of development work that is going on now wouldn't have been possible with the prior Office XP and Office 97 versions, he said.

In addition, he said Microsoft has stepped up its efforts to encourage partners to build their applications to Office 2003. For instance, it held an initial Office System Developers Conference in February.

Dwight Davis, an analyst at Summit Strategies, said Microsoft keeps proving that there are good reasons to use a rich client rather than a Web browser interface in many cases.

"The vast majority of people who would be accessing SAP or some of the other applications are already quite familiar with the Office interface," Davis added. "There's a short learning curve."

In making their integration announcements, i2 and Interwoven also detailed plans to work with other Microsoft products.

Interwoven said it will be an early adopter of Microsoft's SQL Server 2005 database to provide "more headroom" for content management in a single repository. Meanwhile, Dallas-based i2 said its customers will be able to use Microsoft technologies such as SQL Server, BizTalk Server and Visual Studio .Net to more easily craft complete supply chain workflows.

(Marc L. Songini contributed to this story.)

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