Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Will Access 14 be a "Tool for the Web" or SharePoint Server Front End?

Julie Lerman turned me on to Dan Fernandez's Channel9 interview of Bill Gates at the Office Developer Conference (ODC) 2008. What caught my eye were Dan's comments about the next version of Microsoft Access gaining Web capabilities:

The other cool part is hearing Bill hint about how Access will now be a tool for the Web. Many a developer has cut his teeth building Access applications and seeing Access go beyond desktop applications is huge. [Italics added for emphasis.]

Microsoft made a previous attempt to make Access "a tool for the Web" with Data Access Pages (DAP). However very few DAP projects offered Internet connectivity because securing them was exceedingly complicated. Microsoft Office Access 2007 (a.k.a. Access 12) doesn't support creating or even editing DAP.

I cut my Windows database development teeth building Access applications, and writing Using Microsoft Access [1.0] for Windows and 10 successive editions got me into the computer book authoring business in earnest. I was surprised to hear that the next version of Access (14.0, there won't be an Office 13) would be Web-enabled because the preceding attempt failed. So I transcribed BillG's comments on Access, which start at about 06:00 into the 11:42 interview:

Access, of course, has been phenomenally successful, but you think of it as just client forms and client data. Now [with Access] 2007, they did a great job where you could replicate from SharePoint down to Access lists back and forth, but that still didn't let you run your logic up on the server. So the next step is to take that base of Access users and literally let them write things that connect directly up to SharePoint and so it's server-based. So it's a logical step for Access. There's a lot of smart people working on that, so in no sense are we leaving the Access people behind. The same way we moved Excel up to the server, now we're moving Access up there as well.

There's not a single mention of the Web in the Access segment. Bill's comments were all about SharePoint. What's more, Access already has a free server; it's called SQL Server 2005 [Express Edition] or its predecessors, MSDE 1.0 and 2.0. If Access has a server, what constitutes "moving Access up there as well?"

Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin: Excel Services Beget Access Services

Access 12 currently enables importing, exporting, and moving Access tables from traditional .mdb and new .accdb files to or from SharePoint lists. The .accdb format was created expressly to support SharePoint's multi-select lists. You can store Access front ends in SharePoint document libraries, but opening them requires a licensed copy of Access 12 on the desktop. SharePoint has an Access DataSheet ActiveX control that's only accessible if the user has a license for a recent Access version.

An abandoned Excel Blog entry describes Excel Services as follows (slightly paraphrased):

Excel Services is brand new server technology that will ship with Office 12. Excel Services supports loading, calculating, and rendering Excel spreadsheets on servers. There are two primary interfaces: a web-based UI that lets you view spreadsheets in the browser, and a web services interface for programmatic access.

So what happens, exactly, to get the spreadsheet in the browser?  Behind the scenes, Excel Services opens the file the sales analyst saved to SharePoint, refreshes any external data in the spreadsheet, calculates any formulas, and renders the results in the browser. Specifically, Excel services sends only DHTML to the browser (no ActiveX), so the sales manager can be using any modern browser. The result is a very high-fidelity version of the analysis that the sales manager can interact with in the browser or, if they have permissions to do so, open up back in Excel. Excel 12 is the authoring tool for spreadsheets that run on Excel Services.

Note: SharePoint Server 2007's Creating Custom Solutions with Excel Services topic offers more up-to-date and detailed information about Excel Services.

Access 14 might become a "tool for the Web" (or at least intranets) by abandoning any pretense of remaining a desktop relational database management system (RDBMS), and becoming a list management query and reporting tool for SharePoint. This implies a set of Access Services running on the next version of Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS).

The Access Services might parallel Excel Services:

Access Web Services based on the SharePoint Lists Web Service or, less likely, a dedicated SOAP API similar to Excel Web Services.

Access Web Access provided by a simple forms engine, perhaps derived from the existing InfoPath forms engine, which renders customized forms and a DHTML version of the Access DataSheet control in a browser. Excel Services doesn't support VBA so Access Web Access might embargo VBA, too.

Access Query Services based on LINQ to Access (or the like), corresponding to Excel Calculation Services and modeled on Bart De Smet's LINQ to SharePoint project. SharePoint isn't an RDBMS, so support for SQL is superfluous.

Access User-Defined Functions for queries, roughly corresponding to Excel User Defined Functions, provided by the long-awaited Access application add-in for Visual Studio Tools for Office (VSTO).

Update 2/13/2008: InfoWorld's James Niccolai writes in his "'Office 14' to be more Web-friendly, Gates says" article of February 11 from ODC 2008:

Microsoft envisions the next version of Office [will] have partial online functionality similar to how Outlook Web Access works. ... "As we look at all the modules [in Office 14], we have in mind the equivalent of Outlook Web Access," Gates said. ...

It will take another step in that direction with Office 14 by offering Outlook Web Access equivalents of other Office applications such as Excel. "If you look at spreadsheets, maybe you'll not be able to set up all the data models [online], but you'll be able to read documents, change a few assumptions, and try things out," Gates said. ...

Gates did say that SharePoint Server, which is becoming more closely aligned with Office, "will be able to render a greater set of Office documents in an HTML environment."

A Pricey Transition to Access as a "Web Tool"

Web (Internet) access would require a MOSS for Internet Sites license (estimated price $40,943 for MOSS 2007) in addition to a MOSS Server License (est. $4,424 plus $94/user CAL for MOSs 2007) for non-public content.

Bloomberg's "Microsoft's SharePoint Exceeds $800 Million in Sales (Update2)" article reported that SharePoint grew faster than any other piece of software in company history, according to former Business Division President Jeff Raikes at the Microsoft Financial Analysts meeting on July 26, 2007. Microsoft said it has sold more than 85 million licenses to 17,000 customers.

According to eWeek's "Ballmer Details Ways Yahoo Deal Would Challenge Google" article of Feburary 4, 2008 by Clint Boulton:

Ballmer assured analysts that Microsoft is a provider of hosted software plus services for the Internet age.

He said that while people associate online advertising with the cloud computing trend that Google, Salesforce.com and other smaller vendors are leveraging, Microsoft plans to make all of its products available in the cloud as a SAAS (software-as-a-service). That includes the Windows operating system and major money-making products such as Office, in addition to the ad-driven Windows Live suite. [Emphasis added.]

"Each and every one of these businesses on top of a consistent cloud platform transitions to have additional revenue and profit opportunities based on this transformation to the cloud," Ballmer said.

A $40,943 per server price for enabling Access to become a Web tool certainly qualifies as a "revenue and profit opportunit[y]" for Microsoft but doesn't bode well for a "developer [who] has cut his teeth building Access applications" and wants to continue doing the same. This is especially the case when you consider that the runtime version of Access 2007 is a free download.

Update 2/13/2008: Mary Jo Foley's Office 14 to add more online document sharing article of February 13, 2008 sheds additional light on Office 14's "webification."

Update 2/14/2008: CIO Magazine's SharePoint 2007 Demystified: How to Cash in on Collaboration Tools article offers a relatively unbiased review of MOSS for enterprise use. However Sahil Malik contests the article's "Beware Microsoft Baggage" section; see his CIO Magazine - Journalistic ethics? post of this date.


Joeyw said...

Sorry - OT:
That is so sad - no Office 13. Aren't we all supposed to be scientists and engineers. Next they will be using Astrologer star charts to determine the release date.