Microsoft Visio, meet Web 2.0

Next version's changes look good; can you wait 'til 2010 for them?

Microsoft's Visio, best known as software for making static flow charts, is evolving into a tool for creating 'live' data-fed diagrams akin to Web 2.0 mashups.

Microsoft also plans to inject business process management (BPM) features into Visio so that charts will not only be able to view processes in real-time, but possibly also able to execute changes in their workflow.

"Right now if you want to execute a process, you have to hand this off to BizTalk or Visual Studio to do all of this coding," said William Golding, Microsoft's director of product management for Visio, in a Tuesday interview.

These features may arrive in the next version of Visio, which is scheduled for release around 2010, according to Golding, who was speaking while at the Microsoft Office Visio Conference. The conference is taking place Tuesday and Wednesday at Microsoft's Redmond headquarters, with about 300 partners and users in attendance.

Visio is part of the Office family, though it is not included in any of the seven Office 2007 bundles.

Nevertheless, Visio 2007 has sold several million copies, he said. The standard version has a street price of US$259 while the pro version retails for about US$559.

All told, Visio has 15 million users, according to Golding. It is most widely used in industries such as manufacturing, professional services and financial services, Golding said.

The number one user within companies, however, remains IT. Golding estimates about a third of Visio's customers are IT staffers, who use the software, for instance, to diagram their network infrastructure and workflow.

Independent software vendors (ISVs) are already adding features aimed at IT staffers. Codima Technologies' autoMap tool (PDF format) can automatically scan corporate networks and create Visio diagrams mapping them and how data flows through them.

Another partner, DataAssist, has a Visio add-on that automatically scans a corporate Active Directory, with all of its policies, and creates a Visio diagram of that. It just released an equivalent called Net Docs for SharePoint that allows Visio to scan a corporate SharePoint infrastructure and map out all of the sites in a tree-like diagram.

Microsoft plans to build some of that intelligence into the next version of Visio by adding support for the Business Process Modeling Notation (BPMN) standard, Golding said. That will enable users to, for example, automatically model a process and scan it to validate it. Eventually, processes may be managed and changed from the Visio diagram. That would turn the chart into a sort of real-time dashboard that could supplement or supplant systems management dashboards and consoles.

Microsoft is also seeing demand for front-end for business intelligence users who want their data presented in a highly graphical way, he said. Thus, Microsoft plans to imbue its next version of Visio with Web services connectors so that users who lack programming skills can pull in data from databases or spreadsheets to create charts that are essentially updated in real-time, he said.

Golding envisions companies publishing those live Visio diagrams on their corporate intranets. Microsoft is unsure whether it charge client access licenses (CALs) to users that view or manipulate the Visio diagrams.

Despite the mashup-like nature of future Visio diagrams, Golding said Microsoft is not going totally Web 2.0 with Visio. There are no plans to release a 'lite' version of Visio for consumer users, nor release a hosted Software-as-a-Service version.

Already confirmed to be in the next version of Visio is a switch to the "Ribbon" interface used by Office 2007.

A more prosaic feature, a button to automatically align and space Visio charts, actually got the "biggest applause" when it was announced Tuesday, Golding said, acknowledging "there were some pain points in the past to making diagrams look good."

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