Q&A: Microsoft Announces Availability of XML Schema for Microsoft Office Visio 2003

REDMOND, Wash., Apr. 15, 2004 Microsoft today announced the addition of the Microsoft Office Visio 2003 XML Reference Schema to its open and royalty-free documentation and license program that was initially unveiled in November 2003. Microsoft Office Visio 2003 is the diagramming and data visualization tool in Microsoft Office 2003.

Microsoft is providing the complete description of the Visio Extensible Markup Language (XML) file format to enable organizations to access information captures in their Visio diagrams and to integrate with other XML-enabled applications, such as customer relationship management (CRM) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems. Extensive support of XML in the Microsoft Office suite will allow Office applications to create, view and edit structured data stored in disparate systems.

To learn more about how XML will impact users of Visio 2003, PressPass spoke with Jean Paoli , an XML architect at Microsoft. Paoli is one of the co-creators of the XML 1.0 standard with the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and has played a significant role in the XML community since 1985. He has helped accelerate XML activity at Microsoft by creating and managing the team that delivered the software that XML-enabled both Microsoft Internet Explorer and Microsoft Windows.

PressPass: What exactly is Microsoft announcing today?

Jean Paoli: Building on our vision for Office 2003 as Smart Client for XML-based Web Services, we are announcing the addition, effective today, of the Microsoft Office Visio 2003 XML Reference Schema to the open and royalty-free license programs we announced in November 2003. Through the new license program, and the documentation we are providing today, Microsoft customers, partners and even competitors can take full advantage of the XML schema used in Microsoft Office Visio 2003, Microsoft’s powerful data visualization and diagramming tool. By making the Visio 2003 XML schema widely available, and providing documentation to aid solution developers in using it, today’s announcement builds on Microsoft’s ongoing commitment to promote the development of XML as the next-generation technology for integrating applications, services and data sources.

PressPass: How does the addition of Visio to the reference schema library benefit customers?

Paoli: The documentation we’re providing to Visio customers is a key step in empowering our customers to leverage their existing investment in Visio, and enabling them to attain the rich layers of interoperability that comes with Extensible Markup Language (XML).

Because each of the Visio stencils, or SmartShapes, has the ability to store data pertaining to that shape — such as a person’s phone number and title in an org chart, or the IP address for a router in a network diagram — Visio has always been a powerful tool in helping people communicate complex information through easy to understand diagrams. However, it was often difficult for our customers to share the data they captured in their Visio diagrams with other applications or even more critically, to be able to take data they were storing in other applications, and convey it through Visio’s intuitive diagrams.

The reference schema for Visio, called DataDiagramML, provides our customers an XML version of Visio’s file format. This XML file format supports the entire capabilities of Visio. DataDiagramML is what the XML community would call a
“display-oriented”
schema, because it is focused on describing how information would look, for example diagrams, shapes and so on. To enable maximum interoperability, DataDiagramML itself is expressed using a W3C-compliant language, XSD (XML Schema Definition).

By providing documentation and a royalty-free license for this schema, customers and partners will be able to take this schema and use it in their own Visio solutions — linking Visio to other applications and systems throughout their organizations as part of their business processes.

The documentation we’re providing today contains everything a solution developer on Windows or on other platforms would need to know about how to read and write Visio’s XML file formats, including the technical descriptions of objects found in the file formats like shapes and stencils.

PressPass: You mentioned that this schema is


display-oriented.


Are there other schemas as well?

Paoli: Yes there are a variety of schemas; however, they are often characterized as display-oriented schemas, or data-oriented schemas.

Like other markup languages, XML uses tags to define specific elements within a document. XML tags define the document’s structural elements and the meaning of those elements. The tags that can be used for a particular document type or information type are described in what are called XML schemas , which define the set of tags and the rules for applying them. XML can be used to define the document structure and content — not just the look and feel. By doing so, XML separates a document’s content from its presentation, thereby enabling developers to access and manage this content in many meaningful ways. If you think of XML as a language, the schema is a dictionary for reading that language.

Within the Office System XML infrastructure, Microsoft supports
“custom-defined”
schemas which customers can define themselves or that can be defined through an industry process.

Consider a document for a moment. It contains information, but by itself, there’s no way for the document to tell you what it contains — or what the information within it means. Resumes, for example, don’t really
“know”
they are resumes. Thanks to the use of schemas, however, we can provide documents with context, so the data within them actually has meaning. So human resources departments could tag the name, address, career goals, and qualifications, and then use those tags to draw, sort, and use the data according to their needs. By assigning meaning to data, the schema essentially transforms the document into a source of information as rich as a database, and allows that data to be shared with other applications.

There are a variety of schemas in use today. For example, there are schemas for a variety of industries, such as insurance, healthcare, financial organizations, as well as professional services businesses. But individual businesses can also have their own schemas as can different departments within the same company.

PressPass: How does this fit into Microsoft’s overall vision for Office 2003?

Paoli: When we first started planning for Office 2003, we believed the documents that are created everyday comprise the world’s largest untapped database. There were documents on desktop PCs that weren’t connected in any way to what was on the database living within the server. XML-enablement seemed the best way to work toward resolving the lack of interoperability. From a data-oriented perspective, we realized that there was no
“one”
schema that would meet all of our customers’ data needs. So we decided that we needed to provide support for what we called
“customer-defined schemas”
that is, a way for customers to be able to select and use whatever data schema best suited their needs. After all, who knows what kind of information they need to gather and how that data will be used within their organization better than our customers themselves?

But customers also need to archive and preserve the display information in addition to the data itself. So we created the Office 2003 reference library, to provide a way for customers and partners to capitalize on their existing Office infrastructures. Our customers can take their existing Office documents and archive them in an XML format as described in the Office 2003 reference library on the Office Online Web site (see Related Links, right). Since November, when we first posted documentation on the reference schemas, more than 22,000 people have downloaded information about them. We’re obviously pleased with how popular this site is with our customers, and see it as a vindication that our XML vision with Office 2003 was right on the mark.

PressPass: How does your work with Visio continue that overall XML vision for Office 2003?

Paoli: The vision that drove the development of Office 2003 is being realized. We stated a vision with Office 2003, and it’s happening now in several ways. Many of our customers are implementing solutions. Another is that we published the Office 2003 reference schema in November. Today’s announcement is also a significant step in realizing our vision for Office 2003. Visio has always been a powerful tool for organizations due to its familiar interface and its powerful diagramming capabilities. But now, thanks to its support for XML, Visio is able to become a Smart Client for XML-based Web services, and enable organizations to tap into the wealth of data contained by their back end systems. .

PressPass: At a practical level, what does interoperability mean to Visio users?

Paoli: From a very basic level, it means that data no longer needs to be re-entered, over and over again, into different applications throughout the enterprise. But more importantly, it means that information can flow bi-directionally both from the back end to the desktop, and from the desktop to the back end, marking the beginnings of the real-time flow of information.

The way Visio could connect to the back end, but it was difficult. Now, with XML, the connection is straight forward and cross-platform. Now, thanks to Visio’s support for XML, our customers can achieve a second layer of integration, transforming the Visio diagram into a resource for not only seeing data gathered across systems and platforms but working with it as well. The diagram is no longer just a static representation of information pulled at a particular time from a particular system. Thanks to its support for XML, Visio can become the interface for working with databases and back-end servers in real time across the enterprise.

The benefits of doing this are legion. ProActivity Inc., a leading provider of design solutions for commercial and government organizations, for example, reports that Visio’s support for XML in their solutions has saved them valuable time by enabling the access of information in real time while also delivering results more quickly and at a much lower cost than alternative solutions. And an international consulting firm, HRW Consulting, uses Visio for its work with public and private organizations in Europe and has already begun leveraging Visio’s support for XML in its business process solutions. Visio’s XML support not only makes it easier to integrate Visio with other applications, but also provides users with a familiar interface for their data visualization needs.

PressPass: How will Microsoft’s customers and partners be able to obtain the Visio schema documentation and licensing information?

Paoli: It’s available on Microsoft Office Web site at (see Related Links, at right). But we know from talking to customers and partners that they want to be able to share this information as broadly as possible with others, and this is what our license will enable them to do.

True interoperability requires that everyone have access to the information they need. So we designed our Office 2003 Reference Schema licensing program with that reality in mind.