Editor’s note: This week, Office Next will discuss the new Office & SharePoint development platforms. Brian Jones, Principal Group Program Manager for the Office Solutions Framework team, joins the blog to offer three posts about apps for Office and SharePoint and how developers can start building them today.
We’re all familiar with the value of apps on our devices. Something that we on the Office engineering side think about a lot, is how we can take that lightweight connected model that exists today in app stores and bring that value to Office users. We knew that in order to succeed, we had to focus on three groups. For the end user, the experience of finding, trying, buying, and sharing apps had to be lightweight and secure. For the developer, we needed to focus on common developer patterns and provide an easy way to sell their apps. And for the administrator, there needed to be visibility and governance over the apps their enterprise uses. In this post, I’m going to talk about the work we did for the end user experience, and later in the week we’ll cover the developer and administrator posts.
In the new Office and SharePoint, we are introducing a new cloud app model that enables developers to build apps that are scalable and flexible using web standards, such as HTML5 and CSS3. We are also introducing a new Office Store for developers to publish their apps, and for people to find and try apps with confidence.
This is a very important new direction for the Office and SharePoint platforms. We have a huge set of customers who’ve already invested heavily in building solutions on top of Office and SharePoint using a number of extensibility hooks (VBA, Com-addins, web parts, etc.). We will continue to support those solutions, but we’re also taking a step in a new direction with the bet on web standards, which means Office and SharePoint can integrate with web solutions running anywhere. If you’re a web developer, you can also now become an Office and SharePoint developer, leveraging your existing tools, knowledge, and code. So what exactly does an app look like? Let’s go through some of the basics and then I’ll walk you through a solution that is available from the Office Store you can all try.
A new class of apps for Office and SharePoint
As a point of reference, here’s a short video that introduces the concepts of apps for Office and SharePoint. Take a look:
Here’s how it works… these apps are simply web applications that are inserted into Office documents or SharePoint sites. They can integrate and interact with Office and SharePoint though making them more powerful than your typical web solution.
Let me give you a few examples.
Apps for Office
Apps for Office have multiple form factors. They can be inserted inline or as task panes into documents, or be part of templates. In Outlook, they are activated automatically within mails or appointments when applicable.
We have a solution we put together over the past couple of weeks that shows the power of the new model, and is fun to play with if you’ve been following the Olympics at all. We just published a template for Excel, in the Office template gallery, that lets you view real-time results from the Olympics and visualize those results in brand new and interesting ways.
To try it for yourself, download the new Office Customer Preview, open Excel and you’ll see on the start screen a list of templates you can start from. The Medal Tracker template should be the second one in the list.
The Olympics spreadsheet is taking advantage of three separate apps for Office. Since an app for Office works just like any other content you can insert into a document (like a picture or chart), users can now quickly create mashups and dashboards by inserting multiple apps that together form a powerful solution that couldn’t have been experienced before. The Olympics template is a combination of the following three apps:
- Bubbles Chart – You just insert the app into an Excel spreadsheet and then specify what table of data you want it to be bound to, just like you would with a built in chart. It even allows you to insert example data to see what the shape of data is that it’s expecting.
- Medal Tracker – This app can be used in an Excel spreadsheet, and will let you quickly insert data from the games in progress as well as historical results.
- Bing Maps – This is an app built by the Bing team, and allows you to quickly visualize a set of data geographically. It can be used with any list of locations.
Olympic apps Excel dashboard
One area that is unique to apps in Office is that apps in Word and Excel are essentially just content that you can insert into your documents. It introduces an exciting new type of content, and it also makes it much easier for people to share apps that they like with others. You’ll find that even if you aren’t a developer, the ability to quickly drop apps into an Office document gives you the ability to use you own creativity to compose powerful solutions.
In the case of the Olympics template, we had three apps built by three separate groups. Then one of our template authors who helps create many of the templates you see today in Office.com took those three apps and combined them to build a powerful spreadsheet. Think of the cool solutions you can create just by inserting a few apps into a document and then use Office to help create your own mashed-up solution.
In the preview builds, apps for Office are available in Word 2013, Excel and Excel Web App 2013, Project 2013 as well as in Outlook and Outlook Web App 2013. We’ll also have support for apps in PowerPoint 2013, it just wasn’t available in the preview.
In Outlook, apps behave a bit differently from the other applications. An app for Outlook shows up based on the content of mail item, providing contextual information that helps users get things done without leaving their inbox. Here’s an example. Take a look at the mail message (Figure 3). It’s a mail I’ve sent with information on a place to meet for dinner. Notice that at the top of the mail item, there are a few apps that are available to me:
- LinkedIn – This app connects to LinkedIn to find the people included in the mail and either find out more about them or even let you add them to your network.
- TakeNote – This is a fun app that lets you quickly jot down a note about the people on the mail item, and that note can be viewed on any mail item you open from that person.
- Who’s Who – This is an internal app used within Microsoft that lets you look at who the people on the mail are within the company org chart.
- Bing Maps – This is an app that will show up when there is an address in the mail.
Now, if I were to click on the apps tab, apps would appear and show me contextual information. For example, if I click on LinkedIn, and then Bing Maps, here is what I will see directly inside my mail:
Apps for Outlook examples
Apps for Outlook, or Mail apps, are supported in Outlook and Outlook Web App 2013 Preview and require Exchange Server 2013 Preview. Read the article by Rolando Jimenez Salgado about the Anatomy of apps for Office to learn more.
Apps for SharePoint
In SharePoint 2013, just like on your phone, or Windows 8 device, everything is an app. Rather than having to worry about the difference between lists, document libraries, you just have a flat list of apps. Here’s a screenshot of my SharePoint site, and you can see I have a collection of apps. My document list is an app that came with SharePoint, but I also installed the “Bug Champion” app which is an app someone on our team built to help keep track of bugs assigned to our team. There is also the Nintex Workflow designer app that I got from the Office Store.
Apps for SharePoint can extend SharePoint Ribbon and menus, be embedded as part of a site, or be a full web page to provide an immersive experience to users.
Access 2013 Preview enables also power users to create their own apps for SharePoint, like a simple Asset Tracking app. You can learn more about how to create apps with Access 2013 in this article. A good read for developers is the Building apps for SharePoint and Office 365 article by Howard Crow.
Apps for Office and SharePoint keep you in control
We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to make it easy to acquire and share apps, but that meant that we also had to work extremely hard to make sure that you don’t have to worry about security and the negative impacts these apps could have on your experience in Office. Here are a few key traits of an app that should help you feel more comfortable when trying out an app:
Apps can’t get in the way
Apps run in a separate, isolated process. If the app crashes, Office will not be impacted, and you can just restart the app if you want. Performance issues in the app won’t impact the performance of Office. Apps are even isolated from a UI point of view. They aren’t allowed to overwrite the Office UI, or even block events, which means you can have a number of apps in your document and not worry about them all conflicting with each other and turning the Office UI into a Frankenstein experience. This is a break from past models where add-ins could block events and overwrite the ribbon, which meant that if you had more than one add-in running you could get some fairly unpredictable experiences.
You decide what gets activated
One thing you’ll notice is that you can add 100’s of apps to your account without fear of Office itself getting bloated. In Excel and Word, the apps will only run if you insert them into your document, or open a document that already contains an app. If you don’t want it running anymore, just delete it from the document, like you’d delete a picture or chart. In Outlook, apps can advertise themselves based on the content of the mail, but the app will only run if you click on it, and will stop running if you click on another app or close the one that’s open. In SharePoint, you pick what site you want to install the app, and it will only run in the context of that site.
Many ways to get an app and share it
One of the first ways you’ll encounter apps will probably come from opening an existing document that has an app inserted by a friend or colleague. In Word and Excel, an app is just part of the document. You can insert it into the document just like you would a picture or a chart. You can then send that document to your friends and colleagues, and when they open the document they will have the option of activating the app, and in the case of a paid app they can either pay for it or run it in trial mode. Apps shouldn’t be thought of as an extension of the Office application itself, but instead as an extension of your document content.
You can also find apps from the Office Store, and add them to your “my apps” list. Apps from the Store are highly discoverable right from the Office Ribbon and from SharePoint Sites.
When you go to the store and provide your Microsoft account, any app that you install will be associated with your account and those apps will be available anywhere you run Office. There is no heavy installation process required… in fact nothing is installed on the machine. It’s all registered on the server and all your apps will roam with you. This means that anywhere you go, you’ll always have your apps available. Just log-in to Office, and when you click on the “insert app” button, you’re apps will all be there.
Learn more about the Office Store in Vivek Narasimhan post, The Office Store is now open!
Organizations can also setup their private “App Catalog“ to distribute and manage business critical apps internally. We’ll talk more in a next post about how to setup the App Catalog. But the nice thing about the App Catalog for users is that it’s also integrated right from within the Office Ribbon or the SharePoint Sites. As a result, users can access apps distributed by their organizations, or available from the Office Store, in a pretty easy and consistent manner.
The screenshots below illustrate the user experience with apps for SharePoint. As with apps for Office, they are highly discoverable right from within SharePoint sites. In this release, SharePoint components are referred as apps to the users. Therefore, by selecting site contents > add an app, while building and customizing a web site, users can discover apps that are available to them, both internal apps from the App Catalog, or acquired through the public Store.
So how do I get started?
We’d love to get your feedback on the overall experience with apps for Office. If you haven’t already, sign up for the Office 365 preview, and get your own SharePoint site, Exchange Server, and the new Office. Then just go to the Office Store and try out a few apps. There is a rating system for each app, so once you’ve had a chance to use it, please provide feedback. The various app builders would love to hear what you think.
If you are a developer who is interested in building apps, there are a few places you can start (visit http://dev.office.com and our blog). This post covered what the end user experience is around apps, in our next post on Wednesday, we’ll cover the work we’ve done to improve the development experience!
Thanks for taking the time to learn about the work we’ve done. You’ll see from the blogs and the newsgroups that our team has a lot of passion for this area and is really excited to start the discussion with you all about the new model and how we move forward on this new path.
- Brian Jones, Principal Group Program Manager for the Office Solutions Framework team