Microsoft's WWF Smackdown

Friday, September 16, 2005 by

I was told by Scott Woodgate at this week’s Microsoft PDC that WWF is not an officially-sanctioned term for referring to the newly-announced Windows Workflow Foundation (formally announced at PDC). Which is a shame, because I suspect that the arrival of WWF will – if Microsoft executes well – usher in a bit of a smackdown in the world of workflow. (For reference, WWF was previously known as Windows Workflow Services – and before that, WinOE).

After 10+ years as an industry analyst I have a strongly cynical streak, and so it’s a rare thing these days when I get excited about a new technology. Plus, my focus is on the business value of technology – and often, sexy technology is sexy for all the wrong reasons. But WWF is, I think, a game-changer in the world of workflow. Why? Briefly:

  • A semantic model for workflow which is rich enough to encompass the complexities and nuances of real human-centred processes, and also provide easy ways to implement straightforward structured workflows – in one engine
  • A model which can be programmed visually in Visual Studio tools; directly by editing XML workflow representations; or even in C# or VB.NET (think about what that last bit means for ISVs and Microsoft itself, when embedding WWF). What’s more there’s three-way synchronisation between changes made through the tools, editing the XML, and editing the code
  • programmatic model extensibility, with the ability to render flows using existing modelling languages (BPEL rendering is supported out-of-the-box and you or Microsoft can create other renderings)
  • The ability for actors to change workflow instances in which they are participating, on the fly, and extend them to encompass new activities and actors
  • The fact that it will be embedded in BizTalk and Office “12” / Sharepoint, and the new versions of the “Dynamics” (formerly MS Business Solutions) applications – as well as addressable by ASP.NET applications, driving web application page flow.

So – that’s one advanced engine, capable of handling a wide variety of workflow scenarios, which is extremely programmable using common skills, and which will become almost ubiquitous in the Microsoft operating platform over the next two years. Plus, of course, WWF does all the things you’d expect from a workflow product – like providing a rules engine (though in truth, this is more of a framework for a rules engine, aimed at ISVs to build on).

In contrast: today’s workflow technologies are stove-piped, specialised for particular scenarios, often constrained semantically, and implemented as stand-alone systems which are frequently poorly-integrated with other applications and everyday usage contexts.

There’s still a lot that Microsoft could do to squander the opportunity, however. Among other things, it needs to make sure it engages with its current partner community in the right way – to encourage workflow specialists to evolve, while encouraging those which have built their own embedded workflow capabilities to implement on WWF instead. It needs to make sure that it manages expectations around Office “12”: WWF is part of WinFX, which is part of the Vista client and the Longhorn server, but which will not be shipped with Office “12” running on XP. CORRECTION: Belatedly, I realised that WWF will actually be back-ported to XP and Windows Server 2003. Apologies. It needs to make sure that using WWF in applications doesn’t make performance suck. And last but not least, it needs to make the benefits of WWF clear to customers, as part of the drive to convince them of upgrading to future versions of BizTalk, Sharepoint, etc.

I encourage anyone whose interest is piqued by this to go here.

(For transparency purposes: Microsoft is a client. But we haven’t done any work with the WWF team.)

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