Microsoft pushes OBAs to take Office to next level

Microsoft hopes OBAs will be the key to transforming Office from a suite to a platform.

Microsoft has been quietly adding to the cache of reference applications it hopes will help transform Microsoft Office 2007 from a mere productivity suite to a collaboration tool.

Aiming to help users access data from various enterprise sources through the most common Office tools, Microsoft has created add-ons to Office 2007 that it calls Office Business Applications, or OBAs. They add business processes and intelligence to applications such as Excel and Outlook. Last week, the company quietly unveiled an OBA reference application designed for the health-care industry, and the company is gearing up to make OBAs a core focus at its Worldwide Partner Conference next week.

Microsoft hopes partners and customers would enhance the existing Office applications to take advantage of data and processes stored on the back end -- in places such as SQL Server and CRM and ERP applications, a program manager for Microsoft's platform strategy group, Daz Wilkin, said. Microsoft built Office 2007 and created tie-ins to Microsoft server software such as SQL Server specifically with this in mind.

To help companies build OBAs, Microsoft has been releasing reference applications that provide technical documentation and information on how to build the new functionality using Office 2007. The reference application released last week, Consumer Engagement Reference Architecture for Health Plans, details how health care providers and employers can work together to connect employees with personal trainers using Microsoft Office and Microsoft server software.

The key to the application was how easily it could automate schedules using Office applications such as Outlook, Wilkin said. Improved communication let a personal trainer handle more clients than he or she normally could, Wilkin said.

Microsoft was encouraging partners to build OBAs as well, since they hade already been building custom functionality to help business users access data stores through front-end applications such as the ones in Office, Wilkin said.

"People have been able to do this in the past, but now it's a lot better and easier," he said.

Still, Microsoft's current explanation of OBAs is confusing to some of its business partners.

"I don't think it's been articulated clearly what OBAs are yet," said one source whose company works with Microsoft and who asked not to be named.

He suggested that OBAs and the links between Office 2007 and back-end applications such as SQL Server and Dynamics CRM were Microsoft's way of making Office more of a platform on which companies could build other applications.

That could differentiate it from competitive Office suites such as OpenOffice.org, he said.

Other companies that have been working with Microsoft on OBAs seem to have a better idea of how Microsoft hopes they will work. Construction management company, Skanska USA Building, has built an OBA on top of the forthcoming Office PerformancePoint Server 2007 business-intelligence package. Skanska has been a pilot user of PerformancePoint for more than a year.

Microsoft has released a Community Technology Preview of PerformancePoint, which combines existing and new products such as Microsoft Business Scorecard Manager and business intelligence products the company acquired from ProClarity. The final version of the product is slated to be available by the end of September.

Director of information for applications and integration at Skanska, Allen Emerick, said his company was using an OBA it built that combined Office Excel and PerformancePoint to budget and forecast construction projects. Previously, the company used Excel on the front end but had to build an Extensible Markup Language (XML) integration layer between Excel and various Microsoft-based data stores in the back end to achieve the same effect. "Before, we had to do a lot of work to access the data," he said.

More information about OBAs can be found on the MSN portal dedicated to the technology.

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Elizabeth Montalbano

IDG News Service

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