Microsoft Goes All Out to Encourage Developers to Build Apps for Office

As the new Office suite rolls out, Microsoft has opened a an Office Store to encourage developers to create Web-based apps to populate its shelves through an initiative called Apps for Office and Apps for SharePoint.

Microsoft already has more than 700,000 software developers creating and updating applications that integrate with the Office suite of productivity software, but it is trying to build out the Office ecosystem even more.

The company is taking several major steps to encourage developers to support the Office platform and make it as easy as possible to create, deploy and manage third-party applications.

One initiative detailed in a webinar Aug. 7 is called Apps for Office, Apps for SharePoint. The former is related to the overall suite while the latter is focused on the SharePoint app for document sharing across a corporate network or the Internet. The webinar went online the day after Microsoft's Office Store went live to market Office-related apps.

"There's a whole set of developers who never really thought of themselves as Office developers, and so we're really exposing a whole new set of customers to this," said Brian Jones, group program manager on the Office solution framework team at Microsoft.

Microsoft's approach with the Office/SharePoint initiative is threefold, Jones said. First, Microsoft is offering application programming interfaces (APIs) and other services to developers to get them started. Because the new Office is built for the cloud era, Microsoft is largely focused on Web-based app development.

Today, 75 percent of all developers build their apps on top of HTML5, the standard for Web-delivered apps, Jones said. Web apps are easy to build, deploy and manage. In addition, it's easy to receive feedback from end users and to iterate the applications in response to that feedback. Another related effort is to enable apps to run on multiple devices, such as laptops, tablets and smartphones.

Second, the initiative seeks to deliver lightweight apps that are easy for IT staff to manage within an enterprise and to integrate with the existing Office ecosystem.

Third, Microsoft wants to hasten development by providing rich tools to developers while at the same time leveraging existing standards, languages and skill sets that developers are already familiar with. Besides HTML, Office/SharePoint developers will also use standard Web technologies like JavaScript, CSS (Cascading Style Sheets), REST (Representational State Transfer) and others.

"This is the biggest investment we've made in Office around development," said Jones, who's been on the Office team at Microsoft for 13 years.

Microsoft introduced the consumer preview version of the new Office July 16 with an emphasis on application delivery through the cloud based on components such as Office 365 and SkyDrive, the latter for storing documents and other contents in the cloud so others can retrieve them as needed. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer used the term "Office as a service" to describe the company's new approach.

The Office Store, a separate online store for marketing Office-related applications, either free or for purchase, opened Aug. 6 and serves as another inducement for developers to create applications.

With more than 1 billion people using Office around the world, the opportunities for developers are considerable, Vivek Narasimhan, a Microsoft product marketing manager for the Office and SharePoint products, wrote in a blog post.

"This is an opportunity to reach out with tailored solutions for specific verticals from manufacturing to legal, or with enhanced tools from scheduling to collaboration, or with those apps that everyone wants from maps to weather," Narasimhan wrote.

Jones, meanwhile, acknowledged that the initiatives Microsoft is taking to grow the Office ecosystem will help to shore up Office's standing against rivals such as Google Docs, and others that have been eating away at Microsoft's business application market share. It aims to do that by making available more robust apps from developers that integrate with Office and offer value to end users.

"These apps are powerful, but what really makes them key is that those end users can go and grab the apps that they need, based on what goals they have and bring those apps into Office," Jones said.