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XML and Office 2.0

WIth Carl’s recent post on SaaS, and John Newton’s “Content Management 2.0” discussion, I thought I’d throw this into the mix… recently there has also been a flurry of activity around a concept called “Office 2.0” – another offshoot of the term “Web 2.0” – in which all traditional office applications can be replaced by online services accessible through a generic web browser.

What’s making this possible is a set of new technologies including AJAX, RSS and web services, a set of actual applications such as Google’s gmail and ZOHO’s “online” word processor, and a great deal of unbridled enthusiasm.

Since Office 2.0 is particularly aimed at applications that affect business and larger enterprises, I’d like to take a quick look at how well it fits the needs of such enterprises, and then suggest how it might be extended to better meet these needs.

But first, I’d like to point out that it’s easy to get caught up in the details of technologies like AJAX and RSS, and miss the bigger picture. I would propose that the real excitement is in the vision enabled by the technology, as opposed to the technology itself. To not see this leads to the inevitable “religious wars” around specific tools, which we of course want to avoid…

To put this in perspective, Office 2.0 reminds me of what happened with CD-ROM twenty years ago. I still vividly recall a colleague of mine proudly announcing that he was going to the world’s first international CD-ROM conference, which he described as the “Woodstock” of the computer industry. He simply couldn’t contain his excitement about this pivotal event. But then, I remember him suddenly changing his facial expression, looking at me wryly and saying, “well of course, CD-ROM is actually only a storage medium…can you imagine me being excited about going to a floppy disk conference?”

Twenty years later, we might well ask the same thing. CD-ROM has become about as mundane as floppy disks were then. But at the time, CD-ROM represented much more than a new storage medium. Instead, it symbolized the sudden freedom to access and search information – right from your own desktop – that would otherwise be virtually inaccessible. It was in fact, the first glimpse of the kind of mass interconnectivity that the World Wide Web would later provide.

Office 2.0 is much like that – it represents freedom from the tyranny of desktop applications and proprietary data locked up on individual computers. It heralds a new age of unfettered collaboration and information sharing within enterprises.

So what are the key things that are exciting about Office 2.0, and do its maxims and rules actually fit larger enterprises? I think the answer is a tentative “yes” – at least at a conceptual level. And at least so long as the Office 2.0 folks are willing to make a few compromises and entertain some crucial extensions.

To explore this further, let’s go through the official Office 2.0 rules one by one…

#1 – No client application other than a web browser. Actually, this the holy grail of nearly all corporate IT departments, because one of the biggest headaches in IT is trying to keep all the client applications up to-date on individual computers. In practice, we’d have to accommodate situations where a high-speed Internet connection is not available, but I would grant that this is increasingly the exception.

#2 – No files on your personal computer. In principle, this is the entire thrust of enterprise content management initiatives, taking information that’s buried on people’s “C:” drives and getting into a managed and accessible central repository. So far, so good.

#3 – No dependence on any particular vendor.This is another mantra of corporate IT, expressing itself in the current fervor over Software as a Service and Service-Oriented Architectures, ideally with plug-and-play vendor apps encapsulated in generic web services interfaces.

#4 – Collaboration through document sharing and publishing. Again, this a winner with big enterprises. In fact, this is most of what my company, Flatirons Solutions, does for a living. And from the overall perspective of Web 2.0, I might add that wikis and blogs are an increasingly popular way to share ideas and knowledge within larger organizations, supplementing the sharing and publishing of documents.

#5 – Syndication in addition to peer-to-peer collaboration. This is another focus of enterprise content management, allowing people to subscribe to documents or content that has changed or is newly-published. And RSS syndication is increasingly one of the key channels to which we find ourselves publishing content.

#6 – Seamless data import/export across services. This is a fundamental objective of all enterprise content management initiatives, but now comes the rub. The current Office 2.0 vision thinks of sharing in terms of “interchangeable” formats like .DOC, HTML and PDF. But .DOC is a common but still proprietary vendor format, and HTML and PDF are really only sharable at the visible level. In other words, HTML and PDF let you display and print each other’s information, but not actually interchange the underlying source data and information in a way a computer can process and transform.

Proprietary word processing seems less proprietary when it’s on the Web, but if you really want interchangeability between services, you need to be using a vendor, format and media-neutral standard like XML. XML does not assume a particular vendor, nor does it assume web or print as the output medium. Instead, it encodes the information itself in a completely neutral form, from which media-specific formats like HTML and PDF can be derived.

In the work we do with large enterprises, XML also provides the key to sharing information at a much deeper level than “documents.” When we look at the set of documents that people need to share and publish, we see that there is often a tremendous amount of redundancy. If this overlapping information is authored and maintained independently, there are huge problems with inconsistency, and a lot of unnecessary time and cost maintaining and reconciling the multiple versions.

XML allows source information to be “chunked up” into the underlying building blocks, and from there flexibly mixed-and-matched to create the full array of print and Web-based documents. Individuals can collaborate on the source building blocks – without needing to assume a particular assembled document or output medium – and then combine the building blocks of interest into the documents they produce. Furthermore, if these reusable building blocks are structured as standalone “topics”, they can be directly published and syndicated outside the context of a higher-level document or web page. We call this “single source” publishing – because underlying content is maintained once, and then reused many times.

So, is Office 2.0 the right idea for larger enterprises? Perhaps, in principle…but to make it really work we need to merge its vision with the significant work already going on in single-source XML-based publishing. Then we’d have the potential for a real winner.