Picture This: Visio 2003

Even your most artistically challenged customers can use Visio to create complex technical diagrams.

It's probably a conservative estimate to say that a picture is worth 1,000 words -- especially if that picture is an intricate process diagram or a network system map. In the worlds of business and IT, technical diagrams and flow charts are essential for conveying complex concepts and illustrating elaborate processes. Just the thought of having to create something like this, though, can intimidate even the most technically minded person.

Your customers don't need a degree from art school to outline their systems and processes using a tool like Microsoft's Visio. (The current version is Visio 2003 -- Visio 2007 will be coming out early next year.) Visio can create technical diagrams to concisely portray complex processes and systems. It can also automate and update these diagrams by synchronizing directly with data sources like Office applications or SQL Server.

Customers construct diagrams by dragging predefined Microsoft SmartShapes symbols into place. If they can't find the right icon or symbol, there's a search function to locate shapes for specific purposes within Visio's predefined library or elsewhere on the Web. Visio has tools to generate technical diagrams for specific business disciplines, such as project managers, sales managers, operations managers and engineers. If one of your customers does have any trouble along the way, there is context-sensitive help and there are task-specific templates updated regularly on Microsoft's Web site.

Visio has several features that facilitate sharing data and entire diagrams with other applications and external users. Customers can share diagrams through Microsoft Windows SharePoint Services sites, publish and share diagrams by saving them as Web pages, and import and export diagrams in Scalable Vector Graphics format (a new XML standard for Web graphics). They can also import data from Visio diagrams into Office applications like Access, Excel, Word and SQL Server, and embed Visio's drawing controls into other .NET-connected business applications.

Using Visio's drawing templates, your customers can generate diagrams that demonstrate hierarchical concepts, systems and processes; show subset and superset relationships; and outline simple data flows, interactions and various data structures. Process diagrams can include conceptual charts, decision trees, flow diagrams, procedural charts, and time and activity charts. They can also track Six Sigma quality improvement initiatives and ISO 9000 documentation. Besides process diagrams for specific business functions, there are also templates to get your customers started on many other types of diagrams:

Brainstorming: To help guide and track sessions by showing topical relationships and providing a graphical outline.

Charts and Graphs: There are several templates to create bar graphs, line graphs and pie charts with normal and exponential curves and other special effects.

Marketing: Encompassing a variety of functions, these templates include process modeling, benchmarking, simulation, path routing, time and cost analysis, activity-based costing, product portfolios, scope and marketing mix, product life and adoption cycles, market and resource analysis, and pricing matrices.

Flowcharts: Include top-down diagrams, information-tracking diagrams, process-planning diagrams and structure-prediction diagrams. There are also audit diagrams for accounting processes, financial management, tracking fiscal data, money management and decision processes.

Maps: Shapes for roadways, bus lines, landmarks, bridges, trees, rivers, houses, buildings and road signs.

Organizational Charts: These represent hierarchical relationships between people, departments and business functions. Visio includes a wizard to generate organizational charts linked to personnel data, making it easy to keep them updated.

Project Schedules: Customers can use calendars, Gantt charts, and program evaluation and review technique (PERT) charts to plan and manage projects. Gantt charts are suitable for overall project management, task management, schedules, timetables, agendas, project life cycles and goals. PERT charts are best for organizing lists of tasks and establishing timeframes.

Timelines: Customers can illustrate the milestones and stages of a project's lifecycle in intervals of years, quarters, months, weeks, days, hours, minutes and seconds in horizontal or vertical timelines.

Building Engineering: Visio can use building maps as a format to report building-wide data, identify furniture and equipment arrangements, create and maintain seating charts, and create building plans with the Space Planning wizard.

Electrical Engineering: Visio's Electrical Engineering (EE) shapes have been updated to simplify creating diagrams and to better support international EE symbol standards.

Mechanical Engineering: There are two template types for mechanical engineering -- the Fluid Power diagram and the Part and Assembly diagram. The Fluid Power diagram helps design and prototype hydraulic and pneumatic actuated systems. The Part and Assembly diagram supports custom geometry for technical drawing.

Process Engineering: Templates for Piping and Instrumentation and one for Process Flow diagrams. These types of diagrams are used by manufacturing, control, mechanical and electrical engineers to document manufacturing processes, controls and instrumentation.

Network Design: Visio provides updated network templates and shapes, including rack and cabinet shapes. Directory services templates can be used to design new directories, create alternative designs for existing directories, or outline plans for updating or migrating to a current network's directory service.

Database: There are database diagrams that support IDEF1X modeling, relational notations, object-relationship models, entity-level and schema-level diagrams, and product data models with EXPRESS-G notation. Compatible databases include Microsoft SQL Server and Access, Oracle and IBM's DB2.

Software: Visio supports a number of diagrams for software development, like Unified Modeling Language (UML). UML tracks concepts, automated processes, human interactions and associations.

Web: The Web diagramming templates help your customers choose from a variety of display options for site map links. They can also substitute custom shapes and have a link auto-discovery capability.

Tools of the Trade
There are a variety of tools within Visio that will help your customers fine tune and customize their diagrams. Visio has new annotation features that support pen input on the Tablet PC, which facilitates natural markup and creating freehand sketches.

Microsoft Visio 2003


Microsoft Corp.

Release Date: August 2003
Price: $499 Professional Edition
www.microsoft.com/visio

The Track Markup feature lets numerous people collaborate on the same Visio diagram. Each reviewer's contributions are made clear to the other reviewers and the person who ultimately has to incorporate all revisions back into the original file. When completed, customers can import and export Visio diagrams in a variety of formats, such as Scalable Vector Graphics and CAD files.

The Save as Web Page function lets your customers save their Visio diagrams in any of several Web formats. Visio also has a browser-based user interface to dig into the data that supports the drawing. Visio creates Web pages with a modern, accessible interface, making it easy to share information internally and externally.

That's not the only way they can collaborate and share diagrams. Visio's shared workspace supports Microsoft Windows SharePoint Services, so customers can open Visio diagrams saved on a SharePoint workspace directly from within the Visio shared workspace. Visio opens a Shared Workspace task pane with all necessary workplace data, including other files, members, tasks and links.

Data-driven diagrams can automatically link to SQL Server or Access, UML diagrams from Visual Studio .NET projects, Web maps, timelines from Excel or Project, calendars from Outlook, and organizational charts from Excel or Exchange Server. This is particularly helpful for diagrams with frequently changing data, like personnel lists or organizational charts.

Visio can also use XML data from Web services, which can then be used to drive diagram data. Your customers can extract that data as XML or other formats, or export it to Excel, Microsoft Word, SQL Server and other types of files to integrate with business processes and systems.

Marketing and Sales
As always, there is plentiful assistance, training and templates to support Visio on the Office online Web site. There are also other components with which your customers can tie Visio directly into their business applications, or customize it to suit their specific needs. These also represent opportunities for you to develop customized solutions for your customers.

With the Visio software development kit (SDK), developers can build programs using Visio as a platform. The SDK includes samples, tools and documentation to simplify custom application development. It also has a set of reusable functions, classes and procedures that cover the most common development tasks. The Visio SDK supports a range of languages, including Microsoft Visual Basic (including Visual Basic .NET), Microsoft Visual C# .NET and Microsoft Visual C++.

There are several sample applications bundled within the SDK that show how you can use Visio to automate certain tasks and easily integrate with other Microsoft technologies. This version of the SDK also has the new ShapeStudio tool with which either you or your customers can create your own high-quality shapes.

There's a set of ActiveX drawing controls that let you tie Visio directly into other applications to create customized solutions for your customers. You can embed and program the Visio drawing surface into custom applications or existing Office applications. The drawing controls make it easy to include Visio's functions in any smart client or server-based application because you can integrate them within the host application's interface.

Spotlight Highlights


Key Features:

  • Preconfigured templates and shapes
  • SDK and ActiveX controls for custom development
  • Supports new Scalable Vector Graphics format

Competition:

  • Diagram Studio
  • SmartDraw
  • Graphviz

Opportunities:

  • Develop custom solutions for specific purposes
  • Integrate Visio controls into other Office application

Microsoft recently opened its Visio 2003 XML Reference Schema and is providing a royalty-free documentation and license program. Microsoft is releasing the complete description of the Visio Extensible Markup Language file format to help partners and customers alike access data within their Visio diagrams and integrate with other XML-enabled applications.

Finally, the product guide, descriptions and frequently asked questions for the forthcoming Visio 2007 are online. You can read up on the new version to help your new and existing Visio customers prepare, and to help them decide if they'll want to upgrade right away, sometime down the road, or put that decision on hold.

If you're still looking for ideas on how to customize and package Visio for your customer base, there's a short list of Microsoft Visio Solution Providers that focus on process management, automation and several vertical industries on the Microsoft Web site. Here you can also look for a specific type of partner or register yourself to promote your own services.

Competitive Landscape
While other Microsoft Office programs like Word and PowerPoint provide some basic diagramming and charting features, Visio is a dedicated diagramming tool focused specifically on creating technical diagrams. It does have a couple of significant competitors in the marketplace that compete on a functional level.

Probably Visio's closest competitor is Diagram Studio, from Gadwin Systems. Diagram Studio can create a wide variety of flow charts, organizational charts, data flow drawings and diagrams. Like Visio, there are templates for business diagrams, presentations and illustrations; organization and workflow charts; software and process flowcharts; database structures; engineering schematics and technical drawings; Web site designs and network diagrams; research layouts and maps; plus floor plans and street maps.

Also like Visio, artistic ability is not a prerequisite to using Diagram Studio, as it's vastly object-driven. Users can assemble simple graphic components to create basic diagram objects. Simply grab an object and place it in a diagram file. For complex diagram types, there are graphic libraries that come with
the package. The libraries are designed for specific tasks and diagram categories. Diagram Studio users can then customize their charts by applying line colors, fill patterns, shadow colors and text labels. Users can also import graphics and clip art to use in their diagrams.

SmartDraw is another close competitor to Visio. The SmartDraw Suite Edition can create flowcharts, organizational charts, Gantt charts, mechanical and software diagrams, floor plans and calendars. It comes with more than 63,000 ready-made graphic elements, 1,300 templates, wizards to help guide users through the process, and automatic chart builders. It can also import photos and images to use within charts and diagrams. As with Visio and Diagram Studio, users can copy and paste data and complete diagrams into Office applications like Word, PowerPoint and Excel.

Graphviz is an open source graph visualization package. It includes several primary graph layout programs; web and interactive graphical interfaces; and auxiliary tools, libraries and language bindings. The Graphviz layout programs take simple text descriptions of graphs and generate diagrams in several useful formats, such as images and SVG for Web pages, Postscript for inclusion in PDF or other documents or display in an interactive graph browser. (Graphviz also supports GXL, an XML dialect.)

Graphviz has many helpful features for creating diagram files, such as options for colors, fonts, tabular node layouts, line styles, hyperlinks and custom shapes. Graphviz users can also manually create and edit Graphviz files, either as raw text files or within a graphical editor. The creators of Graphviz acknowledge that it is not intended to be a replacement for Visio. It is more of an alternate tool for graphs and charts.

You could also consider Microsoft's own PowerPoint as a potential competitor to Visio, but only at the most basic level. Any of your customers who truly need advanced graphing and diagram capabilities will quickly outstrip those functions within PowerPoint. When putting Visio up against something like Diagram Studio, your sales pitch can focus on the tight integration with the rest of the Microsoft Office Suite and the customizable aspects of Visio.

The Final Word
Visio is more than a simple utility for creating organizational charts or network maps. It can generate a broad variety of business diagrams. The extent to which you can customize Visio using the dozens of pre-fab templates, the Visio SDK and the ActiveX controls presents a unique opportunity for partners. You could, quite literally, develop applications to suit just about any client.