Next Visual Studio Tools for Office comes into view

It is not a replacement for VBA. Yet Visual Studio Tools for Office 2005 aims to provide easier access to .NET programming models.

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Many developers focus their efforts around applications that rely on the Office desktop application suite. For years, the standard focal point for such development was Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) and Component Object Model (COM). That changed in recent years as .NET came along, and Microsoft created Visual Studio Tools for Office 2005 (VSTO 2005) as a new Office development tool set.

This summer, VSTO 2005 is scheduled to ship with new data-binding capabilities, managed controls, plus offline and server features to extend Office application development. As well, it is said to feature ClickOnce deployment options. A beta 2 version is due soon with all important InfoPath support.

The tool set is aimed at the professional developer, but, at the same time, it seeks to address repetitive tasks with a form of object abstraction that is akin to rapid application development methods familiar to traditional VB developers.

A new means to develop Office-centric apps is important to no less than Bill Gates, who addressed developers last month at the Office System Developer Conference in Redmond, Wash. The renewed focus on Office development comes at a time when competitor IBM has begun to rollout a Workplace rich-client framework on the Java platform.

Round 'em up for a streamlined workflow
"When we think about Office, it is at the center of activity, getting people close to numbers," Gates told developers at the Redmond event. "Today we are doing better and better at bringing pieces together," he continued. "The next big move is to build in workflow activities [to Office apps]." He noted that interoperability of data and applications is at the core of workflow, and advances in VSTO help streamline workflow-oriented development.

How does this all fit in with VBA, the macro-oriented means that Microsoft has provided for Office development for some years? Said B. J. Holtgrewe, a lead product manager for Visual Studio Tools: "This is not a VBA replacement. VBA has a very broad audience, allowing you to turn on a macro recorder and quickly produce VBA code." VBA is not being retired, he said.

But, noted Holtgrewe, VBA is a subset of VB6 and is thus "less of a connected program than VB.NET." For developers who want to work with that "connected" paradigm, VSTO may offer a new solution.

The inherent VSTO model is sophisticated in one way -- it supports .NET. And it's simple in another -- many common functions are prepackaged and can be built without the developer knowing a lot about the underlying object model. That could play well with the fact that the world is made up of many different types of programmers.

"Not everybody is going to be a high-end C# programmer," said Holtgrewe. "What we've done with these tools is we've looked back at the VB6 programmers and how they work. We think things are easier and more powerful now with this version and that the VB developer is allowed to become the hero again."

In the new tool, Excel and Word target windows are integrated directly within the Integrated Development Environment (IDE). Online ClickOnce deployment vastly shortens the tedious task of application rollout. And, said Holtgrewe, new Word and Excel Views and View Control object models provide a useful means for displaying data. The software, in effect, Holtgrewe suggests, lets VB developers who are not versed in .NET, work as .NET developers.

All of which could help move along Bill Gates' efforts to spread .NET. "When we first came out with .NET, developers were doing native code," Gates said. "It's only over the last 18 months or so that the majority of new development has moved on top of this platform." Increasingly, the .NET approach, he said, will provide "simplified programming through rich abstractions." Clearly, that is intended to be part of the VSTO parcel.

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