Microsoft used its recent System Developers Conference to unveil a Community Technology Preview of Visual Studio Tools for Office (VSTO). This successor to Visual Basic for Applications integrates Office applications into the Visual Studio IDE, giving .NET developers "a new capability for Office programmability," Microsoft chairman and chief software architect Bill Gates said.
The CTP, which can be download here, includes project templates enabling developers to create application-level customizations through the use of add-ins for all Office applications. It also includes runtime support for Office 2007 features such as the User Interface (UI) Ribbon, Open XML support and a fully customizable task pane. A future version is expected to support all Office applications, including add-in capabilities, visual designers for the new UI features and server tool support.
"Windows Vista and the next version of Office will usher in a new user experience that developers can build upon and illustrate the capabilities of the underlying platform," Soma Somasegar, corporate vice president of the Developer Division at Microsoft, noted in his blog.
A key piece of this transition from business logic and functionality to the user experience lies in giving developers better tools to focus on the user experience. That's where VSTO comes in.
"[B]y reducing software development complexity associated with user experience, we hope to ensure that the presentation layer of applications will not be compromised, making user experience a foremost consideration within both homegrown or packaged line of business enterprise and end-user applications, at significant benefit to organizational and end-user productivity," Somasegar wrote.
The UI Ribbon -- available in Vista and customizable through VSTO -- is the key to Microsoft's focus on improving the user experience. The Ribbon will unify access to features across different applications and will change the functionality available to a user based on the type of object he chooses, Gates said. "Certainly the usability testing on this has been fantastic, but we also think it creates a framework for extensibility that we haven't had before," he said.
The end-user focus for Office applications mirrors Gates' expectation for Web applications, which he articulated in the keynote address at MIX06. Here Gates urged designers and developers alike to build Web apps that appeal to end users, not the devices they use to view those apps. To do this, applications must be more mobile and offer easy ways to view and share files, Gates said.
Along with the VSTO CTP, Microsoft launched the Open XML Formats Developer Group, which will develop standards that make it easier to get information into and out of Office applications without going through the standard UI.
"In the past, you had to think about the user interface of the application and work through that user interface in order to read and write information from the document," Gates said. "Here you can simply think up the name ranges in the document, and moving information in and out is as simple as simply writing to that named range and doing the update there."