Office Gains New Importance
Office, of course, has always been important, but the new version of Visual Studio Tools for Office (VSTO) and last week's announcement
that Office 12 (Word, Excel, and PowerPoint) will use XML file formats by default, elevate Office from a suite of tools primarily targeted toward end users to a new and important platform for developers. During his keynote, Ballmer called on BJ Holtgrewe, lead Project Manager for Visual Studio Tools for Office, who showcased VSTO's new Outlook support in a demonstration that drew loud applause. Holtgrew's demo showed a VSTO-generated Outlook application that tied together e-mail, customer data, reports, workflow, and calendar information into a cohesive CRM application for salespeople.
Although VSTO 2005 Beta 2 ships with Visual Studio Beta 2, the new Outlook capabilities are available for the moment as a separate download with the unwieldy name Visual Studio 2005 Tools for OfficeOutlook (Beta).
The new XML format opens up a huge range of possibilities for developers to interact with Office content. In a meeting with Joe Andreshak, Sr. Product Manager for Office Solutions and Developer Marketing, DevX learned more about the new formats. Although the specifics relevant to each Office application and its file formats differ, the general concept is common across all the XML-enabled Office applicationsyou can use generic tools to find content in any of the files. The files consist of a zip file containing a manifest and a directory structure for the various parts of the file. There's a schema for each file type (Word, Excel, PowerPoint), but some portions of the files, such as images, are stored in binary form, making them easier to extract and work with.
For developers who already have applications in place that rely on Office 2003's WordML, the good news is that they won't face huge changes because of the new Office 12 format. It still relies on WordML for the text portions of the document, but they will have to alter the way they're currently handling binary content such as images, as well as add the code to crack open the zip file and extract the WordML.
Andreshak discussed WinFX supports for reading such zipped files and hinted at upcoming tools to help developers build solutions that create and analyze Office documents without relying on Office itself. That capability is often requested by developers who, for example, wish to perform document construction for contracts or who wish to extract data from Word or Excel files on a Web server. In a breakout presentation, Andreshak and Brian Jones, Program Manager for Microsoft Word, gave an impressive demo of a simple application that traverses a folder full of Word files, changing and updating their style sheets, which literally drew "oooohs" from the audience.
All in all, Microsoft's strategy for application development is clearer than ever. With Team System, Visual Studio 2005, and SQL Server 2005, it has gathered application planning, data management, development, testing, and management into a single unified IDE that you can use to target every type of application from small personal apps to enterprise behemoths, from Web to disconnected. With VSTO, it has given new life to Office development. With SDM, SMS, and MOM, it has provided a way to model, deploy, and manage developed software and hardware. With Active Directory, it has provided a repository for tracking security, employee, hardware, and application information. With the RFID infrastructure, it has provided new inventory management and a myriad of other location-sensitive application possibilities. And using XML, it has made connectivity ubiquitous, made strides toward unifying the management of both Windows and non-Windows systems, and opened up information workers' output stored in Office files to the much larger world of XML tools.
The level of connectivity and integration between all these tools is unprecedented. It's a good time to be a developer.