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What the new Office means for developers

Visual Studio Tools for Office lets developers customize Office documents and applications. Once Office 2007 comes out, the UI Ribbon can get a new look, too.

Visual Studio Tools for Office successfully integrated Office into the Visual Studio environment. With that done, enhancements to the latest VSTO, v3, promise to make it simpler to integrate and customize applications based around Word and Excel.

"Before VSTO, you had a combination of Visual Basic for Applications (VBA), and low level COM interfaces that took you out of what people were doing with Visual Studio," said Peter O'Kelly, senior analyst, Burton Group.

"VBA was a reasonable programming model at the time it started, but it is not applicable for people doing Internet connected applications because it does not have the managed code and virtual infrastructure in Visual Studio." O'Kelly added. "With VSTO, they have achieved the goal of making Office appear as natural elements of the VS environment, instead of something foreign."

Reducing screen real estate

In particular, developers will want to focus on the User Interface Ribbon, a new UI paradigm that promises to put more functionality at users' fingertips, using less screen real estate. With VSTO, developers will be able to create ribbons that provide their own customized experience based on what a user is doing at the moment.

"They want to go from a command orientation to a results orientation," O'Kelly said. "I think they have taken a serious look and found that, in too many cases, people are confronted with too many tools and options, rather than focusing on the business. The big bet is that people will be able to take advantage of more of the capabilities of Office."

Rob Helm, director of research, Directions on Microsoft, said the UI Ribbon is likely to be a lot less intrusive than the current task pane model, especially if the UI Ribbon is only used occasionally. "It should be possible to create more commands with less pain for the user than was possible with the old menus and toolbars," Helm said.

Easier customization from Visual Studio

VSTO v3 also makes it possible to customize documents and the Office applications themselves. For example, a real estate company could create a customized Word document that interacts with the task pane to query the user for information regarding an offer letter. Excel documents could be created that take advantage of the programmability of the Excel engine for advanced calculations or graphing.

In addition, application customization allows programmers to define toolbars to facilitate workflow operations. Access to a company's rule engine, for tasks like generating an offer letter on a house, could be built in at the application level.

"One of the great things about VSTO is that it makes Office development a building block in every developers toolkit," said Jay Roxe, lead product manager in the .NET Developer Product Marketing Group at Microsoft. The new tools will help manage some of the complexities associated with security and management.

VSTO is not necessarily a successor to VBA, Roxe explained. Though VBA will be included in Office 2007, and developers can continue to use it, Microsoft's strategic developments focus on VSTO, he said.

Noting the advantages of VSTO over VBA, Roxe said, "You pick up a much enhanced security model with VSTO. It also makes it easer to take advantage of Web services, connectivity, the .NET framework, and things modern developers expect. There is a whole other of more connected applications that becomes possible with VSTO that would have been difficult with VBA."

New technology a long time coming?

Analysts note that it might be a few years before the new Office is widely deployed.

"A good uptake would be something like a 10% deployment at the end of 2007," said Helm of Directions on Microsoft. "Right now, they just broke into where over half of Office installations were on 2003. It could take maybe five years before the new UI has reached 90% deployment."

But O'Kelly said that this time might be different, since Office 2007 is the "boldest departure" from previous versions yet.

"Office 2007 will be a more compelling upgrade, especially for organizations that want to take advantage of the new features," he said. "On the other hand, it will not be a clean sweep. It will not be the dominant release of Office for two to three years."

This article originally appeared on

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