REDMOND, Wash., May 20, 2003 — Visio has been described as Microsoft’s diamond in the rough. It’s a lesser-known gem of an application, a diagramming tool that can display company sales, profits, employee performance, map out a crime scene or help configure the wiring for an airplane.
With such broad capabilities for graphing, mapping and charting complex ideas, Visio has long been a favorite of employees in technical fields, providing a cost-effective tool with many of the same capabilities of high-end engineering tools such as CAD.
With the recent release of Microsoft Office Visio 2003, Microsoft has returned Visio to its roots, improving the diagramming features and libraries of shapes that have made the application a hit for years. But there are also new features in Visio 2003. Integration with XML provides extensive capabilities to integrate with back end servers, databases, Web services and other applications enabled by Visio’s. And a new ActiveX control allows organizations and developers to use Visio 2003 as a front end to a line-of-business application or embed Visio in a custom solution, providing customers with a flexible tool to meet a variety of diagramming needs.
PressPass recently sat down with Visio General Manager Richard Wolf to discuss the next version of Visio. Wolf has been in the graphics industry for over 20 years now, ten spent at Microsoft. Wolf is a founding member of the Office team and has also recently worked on products such as InfoPath. Wolf discusses how Visio’s improvements to its core functionality can help engineers and developers, and how its new capabilities for integration with live data create a whole new role for Visio in the emerging discipline of business process management.
PressPass: On a basic level, can you explain the role of Visio? What does it allow people to do?
Wolf: Fundamentally, Visio is all about making it easy for ordinary people to produce very detailed, accurate and presentable diagrams that can be communicated and understood broadly. Visio presents the user with a set of shapes and symbols relevant to the context of the drawing, such as the flow chart symbols for a process diagram. Visio makes it easy for users to build drawings out of these different kinds of shapes or symbols by simply dragging and dropping them onto a page. People use the drawings to create business processes, organization charts, project plans and timelines, as well as many more complex things.
The key concept is that the shapes are
and there is logic behind each shape. The shapes can adjust their size, position and aspect ratio, and other characteristics based on where they are in the diagram in relation to other shapes, and so on. As well, the shapes can have user-defined properties that capture domain specific information, such as the cost in dollars or number of people involved in a specific step in a business process. So Visio is a smart visual tool that makes it easier to create very complex diagrams.
PressPass: Microsoft has characterized Microsoft Office Visio 2003 as a
return to its roots.
Can you explain what that means for your customers?
Wolf: After the application was initially developed, we went down a path of building out Visio’s library of shapes and then getting deeper and deeper into specialized markets, building out a large number of very specialized solutions and capabilities that we have in the product. While we will still support these capabilities, with this version of Visio we’re really refocusing on the basic capabilities of the product, improving business diagramming, adding new templates and providing our customers with resources, such as diagramming wizards, that will help them to better perform their jobs on a daily basis. Visio also provides our developers with a flexible platform to build upon. But with this version of Visio, we are really focused on providing value out of the box and increasing productivity for business and technical professionals, which was a core foundation Visio was built upon.
PressPass: There has been much talk lately about using Visio for business process management and analysis. Can you explain what that means?
Wolf: In this economy, companies are more likely to improve their bottom line by reducing costs as opposed to increases in revenue. Business process management, or BPM, is an emerging business discipline that helps to reduce costs by increasing efficiency in business processes. It involves extensive analysis to identify bottlenecks or potential improvements in how things are done.
The first step in BPM is to map out the process visually, which helps an organization understand the logic, or lack thereof, behind each step. Business processes can be very difficult to understand if they are documented through text or lists. But with a diagram, a company can literally see overlap in certain departments, unrealistic timelines, possible ways to streamline processes, or the need for more employees.
The next step of BPM is to analyze the processes and the operation of the business and explore new ideas and workflow. Once this has been solidified, the process is accessible and easily communicated and understood throughout the company. BPM is a core business philosophy that has gained momentum over the past few years.
As a diagramming tool BPM was a natural step for Visio, especially since many organizations are already familiar with Visio as part of the Microsoft Office system of applications. Visio will also be tightly integrated with Microsoft’s
project, an effort to integrate and componentize Microsoft e-business servers to help enterprises connect an IT ecosystem of information, people and business processes. Visio 2003 can help our customers make business process management a seamless and natural transition.
PressPass: How does Visio’s support for XML and the ActiveX control fit into the BPM picture?
Wolf: In a nutshell, support for those technologies allows Visio documents to become a
creating documents that are tied into back-end processes and databases, and becoming solutions in their own right. Visio documents can be connected to data in back-end business via XML, Web services and so on, creating a live view of that data as it changes over time. This gives organizations the ability to create diagrams that are more than just static snapshots of their processes: the smart client becomes a live, real-time tool for monitoring the costs, time and the efficiency of business operations. Support for ActiveX allows developers to then take those smart client solutions and embed them in Visual Studio .NET applications, intranet portals, Windows SharePoint Services sites, standalone desktop applications and more. In this way, the Visio drawing surface can become a custom business solution that can monitor nearly anything supported by information systems. These solutions can be created to support an infinite number of business needs.
PressPass: Can you give us an example of how an organization might use Visio as a smart client? What are its advantages?
Wolf: One common use of Visio is the creation of organization charts, showing the structure and hierarchy of a company and its departments. Often, an organization will have an abundance of other data about its employees: salary, performance information and so on. If the company has a Web service front end to that data, it can be displayed in Visio in a very intelligible manner. So, for example, the company can make an organization chart for its sales department that is linked up with a database containing sales information by employee. The chart can hold employees years in company, performance history and can be created to include thresholds for the database information so that all of the best performers are colored in green, the average performers in yellow and the poor performers in red, making it very apparent who the top performers are and who needs improvement. This is a basic example, but in general the diagram allows patterns to stand out that would not be apparent from looking at the same data in a tabular form.
PressPass: Considering its ability to provide the basis for custom business solutions, will you be supporting Microsoft Office Visio 2003 as a development platform?
Wolf: Yes. We have a software development kit coming out with Visio 2003 that will document the product’s object model very well, and we will continue to enhance that documentation. We will include examples, code samples and direction on how to use the object model. We will also release a new developer-oriented tool called Shape Studio that will help partners and corporate developers to create their own shapes.
The other important parts of Visio as a platform for developers are, as we’ve discussed, XML, which makes it very easy for developers to extract information from a Visio document or diagram or push information into the diagram from other sources, and the ActiveX control, which allows Visio documents to be embedded into a solution seamlessly. We think the combination of these two elements will open up vast opportunities for developers and ISVs to create powerful solutions with Visio.
PressPass: On May 20th customers will be able to sign up for the Visio 2003 beta. What are some of the ways you improved Visio to address the needs of such a wide range of customers?
Wolf: Visio is defined by two key audiences: technical users and business users. In the past, the value proposition for the technical audience has been much more clear than for business users. With this version of Visio, we have taken into account all of the feedback we have received from both our technical audience and our business audience, and tried to enhance the key value for both parties.
Technical users will find value in Visio’s incorporation of Web services, ActiveX Control, integration with BizTalk, SQL, Project Server and SharePoint, and XML. Business customers will experience enhanced integration with Office. And a new collection of starter templates makes it easier to create a wide range of diagrams in minutes. I think both audiences will find clear enhancements and gains with this version that will provide an immediate return on the investment.
PressPass: What’s next for Visio? Where do you see the product heading?
Wolf: Integration with Office System applications and other Microsoft technologies are a focus for this release, and will continue to be a focus as we move ahead. Specific to BPM, we’ve talked about Visio’s role in documenting, analyzing and communicating business processes, and those are three important parts, but we want to take those capabilities a step further to have that diagram actually drive the creation of the business process.
We want Visio to enable users to create a workflow by moving shapes around and connecting them, and have that workflow actually translated and implemented by the back-end systems. Moreover, we’re working on capabilities to show users in a work-flow where they are in the process. So for example, if you were filling out an InfoPath form, from one point of view you’re just filling out a form. You don’t know the next step. But what if you could see a diagram that could show you who it’s been to, what the routing has been so far, and where it’s going beyond you in a flowchart type fashion. We’re working on features like that, and expect to be talking more about those later this year.