Microsoft overhauls enterprise Office and SharePoint app development

Apps will be easier to write, buy, sell and govern, Microsoft says

With the introduction of Office 2013 Preview, Microsoft has overhauled how business developers write Office and SharePoint applications and how users access them while at the same time giving IT administrators the ability to control which applications are available to users.

This new cloud application model embraces common Web languages for writing code and includes an online store for purchasing the applications. At the same time, IT professionals are given control over whether end users have access to the entire store or whether they can reach just those apps that have been selected and set aside in a corporate catalog, says Richard Riley, a director in Microsoft's Office division.

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This friendlier application development environment will encourage enterprise customers to do more of their own development rather than relying on apps in stores, says Jim McGregor, president of Tirias Research, because they have the resource to hire developers. "They'll develop apps that do exactly what they need them to do and what their customers need them to do," he says. Businesses could develop customer-facing apps based in the cloud that deliver a variety of services, such as enabling an insured person to file an insurance claim from a wireless laptop using a local Office app in combination with an insurance company app in the cloud, he says.

He sees Microsoft adopting Google's model of opening up app development to everybody and giving them away or selling them inexpensively. "Microsoft has learned that the software business has changed," McGregor says. "Opening up to third-party developers who offer apps from free to close-to-free is a critical part of it for consumers."

But getting existing business customers to buy into Office 2013 so they can take advantages of these new development possibilities may be a tough sell, says Paul DeGroot, principal consultant with Pica Communications. Corporations that standardized on Office 2003 and bought perpetual licenses could still be using it at no annual cost, he says. Buying Office 2013 means an investment and disruption, and he says subscribing to Office 365 means paying about a third of a perpetual license per year with no years when there is no payment. says.

He says he is aware of many Office customers who have bought perpetual licenses for Office 2010, have installed it and are happy to leave it in place. "They're not renewing it," he says, "they own it. They don't want to do another Office install for five years, and Microsoft will make no money off that."

The problem for Microsoft is that it makes more money from Office than it does from Windows, but applications are moving to the Web, DeGroot says, so it needs a Web-based revenue stream. This new cloud app model can help attract users to Office-related Web services.

In keeping with this model, the applications actually run in the cloud and render them to the particular file on a user's machine.

In addition, these Web applications are inserted in Office apps and SharePoint, gathering and manipulating data and formatting it. For example, apps for Excel can gather data from the Internet, enter it in a spreadsheet, and also present it in graphs, charts and maps. Apps for Word can gather data from the Internet based on keywords designated in documents, and that data can be linked to the document itself so when the document is shared colleagues have access to the same external data.

These new applications can appear in Office applications and SharePoint as task panes within documents or they can be inserted online. Individual applications can also be strapped together to create more complex applications.

By virtue of being in the cloud, applications used to create documents can be linked to the document. So if an app has been used to create a chart based on data gathered on the Web and entered in an Excel spreadsheet, the document can be sent to other people and they can work on it using the same application to gather updated information. Because the application is in the cloud, the recipients of the document don't have to be running the app locally, just have access and authorization to use the app in the cloud. The cloud could be Microsoft's Azure or Amazon Web Services. The point is it can be virtually any cloud and only Web skills are necessary to develop, Riley says.

The example Riley uses is that of an application written to go along with the Olympics called Medal Tracker. It gathers current online data about medals awarded at the games in London and presents it in a task pane within an Excel spreadsheet. The data is also entered in the spreadsheet itself. A separate app called Bubbles takes the same data about the medals and represents the number of medals won by country with larger or smaller circles that are proportional to the number of medals won. A third app called Bing Maps can portray proportional circles on a map to show the location of countries that have won medals and give an idea of how their haul stacks up to others.

Development of applications is effectively being extended to any Web developer, not just developers trained in Microsoft programming. These new apps can be written using HTML5, JavaScript, CSS3 and others that are familiar to Web developers.

The same cloud application model applies to SharePoint, and there is a separate SharePoint app store as well.

Developers can submit applications to the store, and if they are approved by Microsoft, can be sold there at an 80-20 split, with developers getting 80%. Developers can also set the price within a range to be determined later and the licensing conditions, Riley says.

Expanding the pool of Office and SharePoint developers by using Web programming could lead to new applications that Microsoft didn't think of that are attractive to customers, DeGroot says, and that require customers to buy the new Office in some form that has the Web APIs. "It's really critical that they not move the entire application to the Web," he says, but having businesses subscribe to Office would be good for revenues. "Subscriptions will generate long-term revenue streams which they are not guaranteed with perpetual licenses," he says.

To try out Apps for Office and Apps for SharePoint, apply for an Office 365 Developer's pass.

Tim Greene covers Microsoft for Network World and writes the Mostly Microsoft blog. Reach him at tgreene@nww.com and follow him on Twitter @Tim_Greene.

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