Financial Help: New RAP for 2007 Office

In March Microsoft released another Office Business Applications (OBA) Reference Application Pack (RAP), this one aimed at Loan Origination Systems (LOS). It's the third in a series of technical-resource releases designed to help guide the development of what Redmond considers "a new breed of applications" that use the 2007 Office System as a platform.

OBAs focus on collaborative processes such as e-mail and voicemail that are largely unstructured, but have a direct impact on business performance. The idea is to extend the Microsoft Office client and/or SharePoint Web Parts into business processes running in line-of-business apps, making it a front-end for CRM or ERP applications.

The LOS RAP shows developers how to build workflows that unify business processes and uncover line-of-business data through familiar user interfaces. It includes architectural guidance for implementing the reference solution, a hands-on lab and webcasts that illustrate the end-user experience.

Part of a Bigger Picture
With Office 2007, Microsoft is providing a set of servers, clients and tools designed to make it easier for enterprises, software vendors and developers to build and deploy OBAs.

But OBAs are about more than just slapping an Office-based front-end on line-of-business systems, says Daz Wilkin, program manager for Microsoft's platform strategy group.

"The activities we're observing are much more exciting than that," Wilkin tells RDN. "In fact, we're seeing OBAs being used to turn rather prescriptive interactions with inflexible line-of-business systems into solutions where all the information is delivered to the information workers in a form they prefer, enabling them to follow their organizations' business practices much more closely."

Microsoft released a RAP for supply chain management last October, and one for retail in December. Since then, Redmond has ramped up its support for this new breed of app-maintaining an OBA dev portal on its MSDN Web site. The site features an OBA team blog, case studies and a how-to center that contains more than 100 short developer examples of how to use Office 2007 as a platform.

Partners Onboard
Wilkin claims nearly 40 Microsoft partner ISVs are now building OBAs. "We expect to pump out five case studies per month," he says. He expects Redmond to release three more RAPs in the coming months.

So why did LOS get the RAP treatment? According to Mike Walker, who manages the architecture strategy for financial services at Microsoft, loan origination provides a perfect opportunity to show how an OBA can simplify and improve an unwieldy business process.

"There are many forces at play in this process," Walker says. "You have to deal with long-running workflow; legacy integration; strong regulatory compliance issues; and business rules that can be static, but may be orchestrated in many different ways. When you apply Office applications to all that, you can make a company much more agile and competitive."

Walker, who architected the OBA RAP for LOS, sees OBAs as tools that empower the business user. "We take structured business processes and allow them to be serviced through human workflows," he says.

OBAs Still Evolving
Analysts at Forrester Research Inc. have been watching the progress of OBAs. In a report published last summer ("Developers, Get Ready: 2007 Microsoft Office is a Serious Application Platform"), they observed that "the majority of the Microsoft developer community works with Microsoft's base platforms and Visual Studio tools, and views Office as an add-on, while a smaller community sees Office as the Microsoft development platform. Microsoft's goal is to make Office a first-class component of a broad 'application platform' alongside .NET Framework, SQL Server, SharePoint Server and BizTalk Server."

John R. Rymer, lead author of that report, tells RDN that OBAs have evolved considerably since Microsoft began talking about them a few years ago. "When I was introduced to it, an OBA was a real application with a price and a SKU," Rymer recalls. "Now they've shifted their thinking about this thing. Now it's more of a pattern. More, 'Here's a sample app that you can build.' In some ways, [Microsoft] is still trying to figure out exactly what the OBA model should be."

With OBAs, Microsoft is following a tried-and-tested strategy of enabling application developers, through a combination of education, guidance, technical resources and tooling, to extend the value of the platform -- in this case Office -- and address horizontal and vertical market/geography-specific requirements, says Neil Macehiter, research director at Macehiter Ward-Dutton.

Rymer agrees: "There's so much demand from customers to get more out of the desktop, to get more out of Office. Everybody recognizes that most of us live in Outlook, so everyone wants a piece of it. And this is against a backdrop of Microsoft trying to pump up enthusiasm for Office 2007 and Vista. One way to ramp up sales is to expand the use cases that your software is addressing. OBAs provide a way to inject Office into more applications."

The positioning of OBAs as a class of applications that connect existing line-of-business systems with the people that use them reflects Microsoft's "People-Ready" tagline, Macehiter adds. It also builds on Microsoft's "Connected Systems" proposition and the work that Microsoft has done internally (under the code-name "Elixir") to use Office and Outlook as the application front-end to CRM data.

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at [email protected].