OpenXML - Open for business

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  1. Introduction
  2. Collaborative solutions
  3. Small is Beautiful

Collaborative solutions

This article was originally published on DNJ Online
DNJ Online

Separation of parts

CODA develops financial management software for medium and large organisations. CODA applications have linked to Office products quite extensively in the past, and particularly to Excel because it is the tool of choice for most accountants. CODA is currently working on project Neon and is testing Open XML for use in a future release.

One aspect of Neon that could benefit from Open XML is the procurement process. This process can be initiated by emailing each potential supplier an RFQ (Request for Quote). This email contains a small Excel 2007 spreadsheet in which suppliers enter the prices, delivery dates and so forth that make up their quotes. When the email is returned the application automatically extracts the XML data from the RFQ spreadsheet and adds it to a master spreadsheet that is collating the quotes from each supplier. The user can then choose a supplier by clicking on a custom control in the Excel 2007 ribbon which updates the system with the necessary details.

“Being able to transport XML data in and out of a spreadsheet means we can use it as a data source without having to do much in terms of translation,” says Tim Tribe, Head of Product Management. “Open XML will make it easier to present the data to users in formats they feel comfortable with, such as Microsoft Excel and Word.”

The support in Open XML for custom data parts will allow CODA to include tracking information with each RFQ spreadsheet. CODA is also looking to use Word 2007 for order entry. Here a custom data part helps keep the Word document synchronised with the central database. “Having custom XML parts allows us to put information in a format that our application can easily deal with, away from the main data that is displayed to the user, and then reference it when we need to.”

Here CODA has found the Packaging API which comes with .NET 3.0 very useful. As Tribe told us, “You can read the XML directly but it’s a lot more difficult to parse without the Packaging API. It helps separate out the data you need.”

Tim Wallis of solution integrator Content and Code also feels that the ability to present information to users in a form that can be read using Microsoft Office applications is a real benefit. Content and Code has recently rolled out an Open XML-based solution which users access through Word 2003, thanks to the Compatibility Pack. “It is transparent to the user.”

Collaborative solutions

Open XML can also open doors when it comes to building collaborative solutions. As Paul Watson, a solutions architect at Edenbrook, points out: “The ownership of style, graphics and different elements of the content may lie in different parts of the organisation, or across different organisations altogether. Regardless of what software they are using, provided it supports XML they can publish those elements back to the central workflow which then aggregates and creates the document. It’s a much more flexible system going forward.”

Content and Code is currently working with a travel company that is extracting data from a Unix-based service and pushing it into QuarkXPress publishing software running on the Apple Macintosh from where it can be turned into printed brochures and Web pages. The company is looking to replace this with Adobe InDesign, which can understand data in XML format, for the printed brochure. On the Web side they are looking to publish the data as a Word or PDF document.

Wallis explains: “Imagine you are shopping on-line and you shortlist four or five holidays. You don’t want a big thick brochure which is expensive to print. Instead they can print their own customised ‘My top holidays for 2007’ brochure which they can view at home. It’s that sort of document production that’s really convenient.” The customer would download an Open XML document which they would then open on their desktop. Watson adds, “Once you have your data in an XML format, turning it into Open XML is a nice easy solution.”

Indeed Open XML can become an alternative to PDF for transferring printed documents across the Internet. In much the same way as you click on a link to download a PDF document, together with the Adobe Reader if not already installed, you can download an Open XML document, together with Word, Excel or PowerPoint Viewer 2007 if you haven’t already got Office 2007 installed. The advantage from the developer’s point of view is that Open XML documents are easier to assemble. Furthermore, it opens up the possibility of the user editing the document and returning it for further processing.

As Wallis says, “It’s bringing the commonality that HTML has across any type of phone or browser to the document format.” Watson points out, “A lot of workflows are content-driven so, if it is in an XML format, anything that can understand XML knows where to locate the right piece of information or property of that document, and can interact with it, change it, push it to a new end-point. It does really open up the doors for driving solutions around those qualities.”

Here to stay

Standardisation means that the Open XML format is here to stay. Ratification by Ecma International means that Microsoft no longer owns the format, but instead its future will be determined by a Technical Committee whose members include not only Microsoft and other industry leaders but also organisations such as the British Library and the US Library of Congress who have a strong interest in Open XML being around for a long time to come. Ratification by ISO can only strengthen this. Developers can work with Open XML confident that their solutions will work well into the future, and certainly beyond the next version of Microsoft Office.

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