A Primer on Apps for Office in Excel

This post is brought to you by Keyur Patel, a Program Manager on the Excel team.

In Excel 2013, even your spreadsheet can have an app . . .

One of my areas of responsibility in the 2013 cycle was thinking about integration of the Apps for Office platform into Excel across the desktop and the web. I’m going to cover how you can make your spreadsheets do things you may not have considered before using an app.

I’m hoping that for a few of you who have some coding chops, you’ll be inspired to visit http://dev.office.com, learn the Office JavaScript API, and create some new apps.  I’m also, hoping to give folks a chance to look into some of the scenarios we started off with when designing Version 1 of the Apps for Office platform.


An app for Excel is really an embedded web page within the spreadsheet.  Of course, we’ve beefed up the web page so it can read and write data, as well as respond to certain events that could occur within the spreadsheet. There are two ‘shapes’ for Apps for Excel: content and task pane.  A content app is similar to a chart in that it floats in the grid. Switching to another sheet or scrolling may cause the app to be no longer visible.  A Task Pane app on the other hand is one that lives in a window we like to call a Task Pane. Task Panes are typically docked to one side of the screen. The Task Pane can be undocked and moved around.  For those familiar with the Office clipboard, that also lives in a Task Pane.

For the most part, that’s the primary difference between those apps. Otherwise, they can do similar things.

Try it out…

So let’s dive in. The spreadsheet here contains an embedded Excel web app that you can try yourself. It’s using some canned data about unemployment rates across the US. I’ll explain this in the Excel Web App section. But in the meantime, try clicking on one of the table slicers above and see the map update.

(Note: to see the app you’ll need IE9+ or another modern web browser that supports HTML5. You may also need to “start” the app by clicking on the blue shield in the app’s upper left corner.)

What can apps for Excel do?

Apps for Excel can do a variety of things, but I’m going to focus on the top 3 scenarios we looked at when prioritizing the functionality.  We took a scenario-based approach in defining what functionality made it into the app framework. We had to start somewhere, so we started with the following:

1. Help me visualize my data…

The Bing Maps App

As we started to look into the first wave of solutions, we actually started with an old problem. We’ve always gotten requests to expand our chart types. We were never able to keep up with demand and changing landscape. So our first scenario was really around helping the user visualize their data and empowering developers so they can create their own custom visualizations! 
Check out: The Bing Maps app

2. Help me look up…
We also wanted to provide additional information – whether its data, images, video. You name it, the web will show it.

The Bing Dictionary App

 Check out: The Bing Dictionary app

3. Help me get…
The third scenario we had looked at was around getting data. Given that apps are essentially web pages, it was natural for us to use that platform to import data into Excel. With apps, you can import and refresh your data from almost anywhere.

The Bing Finance App

Check out: The Bing Finance app

Is that it? Definitely not. My colleague, Juan, has some more scenarios listed here that you can check out.

I’m convinced; I want to play with some apps.

Apps can come from a variety of places (such as from an internal organization or from the office store) but to keep things simple, I’ll focus on the place where most consumers will be able to get them: THE OFFICE STORE.

Step 1: Acquire the App
From the browser:

  1. To install apps from the office store you simple go to it by visiting http://office.com/store, and clicking the Office Store tab on the right.

From Excel client:

  1. Go to the “Insert” tab
  2. Click the “Apps for Office” button (Follow the instructions to sign in with your Microsoft account if needed. This should be the same account you signed into the Office Store with. Don’t worry, you won’t have to sign in every time, thankfully.).
  3. Click the “Featured Tab” or click the “Find more at Office.com” link at the bottom of the window

Step 2: Add the App to your Spreadsheet

OK, you’ve just now acquired the rights to the app. In the case the app was for purchase, you may have paid for it too. Next we need to

  1. Go to the “Insert” tab
  2. Click the “Apps for Office” button
  3. Go to “MY APPS”
  4. Select an app
  5. Click “Insert”

Starting an app from a workbook someone sent you

Sometimes you may receive a file or link to a spreadsheet. In that case, you’ll need to Start and trust any apps that you have not acquired.

In the top left corner of the app, you’ll see the following icon:

Click on it to expand the banner. There you can choose to view details of the app or start it.

As a reminder, to use apps from the Office store, you need to be signed in with your Microsoft account. If you are not, you will get a credentials dialog that will allow you to sign in and start the app.

See your apps on the web

See your apps on the web

One of the really cool things about content apps for Excel is that they can run in your browser as well as the Excel 2013 client. If you save a file to SkyDrive, your Office Store app will automatically run in your browser. That’s it!

As you saw in the Try it out section above, the other cool thing we can do is to embed a spreadsheet that has apps in it using the Excel Web App embedding.  Simply upload your spreadsheet as before, click share -> embed.  One of the new options you’ll notice in the Configurator view is the option to choose your own app.  Select it and copy/paste the embed code to your favorite blog, and you’re done.

What if my app is configured by my company or organization?  In that case you’ll likely need to talk to your administrator, but we’ll cover configuration of internal apps on the Office Apps & SharePoint blog.

Are these apps safe to use?

The app platform is made secure by design. One guiding principle we had was around trust, and Excel will never start an app that you have not trusted before in your document. As I covered in the “Starting an app from a workbook someone sent you” section, it will always be up to you to trust an app.

If you want the full nitty-gritty details on how Apps for Office work and how we’ve made them secure, I’d recommend you check out this blog post from Rolando.  If you’re still concerned you can disable apps from being started within your document via File | Options | Trust Center | Trust Center Settings… | Manage App Catalogs | Check the “prevent all apps from running” setting.

I hope that this post proved insightful on getting started with using apps for Excel. For reference, attached is a workbook that you can use with some apps embedded in them.

Keyur Patel
Program Manager, Excel