Microsoft Office development platform ups and downs

Attendees at the Microsoft 2008 Office System Developer Conference are mostly pleased with company's efforts, but say the new ribbon-based Fluent UI takes getting used to

Attendees at the Microsoft 2008 Office System Developer Conference this week are leveraging development capabilities in Office System, but cite issues such as getting used to the new ribbon-based Fluent UI in the 2007 Office release.

A sampling of attendees at the San Jose, Calif., event revealed mostly satisfaction with Office System. Most were Microsoft business partners developing applications for Microsoft's SharePoint platform for collaboration and business processes.

"I bought into it. I'm drinking the Kool-Aid," said Jeff Modzel, technical architect for SunGard Higher Education.

"Our customers are colleges and universities and their constituents, which are students. Kids very much want collaborative environments for their classes. SharePoint's an easy solution to that problem," Modzel said.

He described Office System as an "excellent" development platform, although he noted difficulties in writing an Excel 2007 add-in prior to getting the newly released Visual Studio 2008 platform.

The new ribbon-based Fluent UI in the Office package takes some getting used to, Modzel said. "The first handful of times I used it, I did not like it, and the more I used it, the more I liked it," he said.

Consultants at developer OTB Solutions also mentioned issues with the ribbon. The people who hate it the most are the people who are very familiar with the old Office platform, said Dick Federle, consultant at OTB. But he still likes the feature. "The neat thing about the ribbon is since it’s context-sensitive, you're only seeing what's important for what you're looking at, at the time, said Federle.

Another consultant at OTB gave the ribbon a thumbs-up. "It's become familiar. You can use it and extend it," said OTB consultant Jen Glass.

OTB has been using SharePoint as an application development platform. "We saw with the new SharePoint platform that it was actually ready for enterprise applications," Federle said. For example, OTB has developed a health insurance claims-auditing system that processes more than 1.5 million transactions a month, he said.

Developers, though, must adapt to using configuration capabilities in SharePoint rather than resort to coding, Federle said. "There are a lot of capabilities and a lot of problems you can solve with SharePoint through configuration without having to write any code," he said.

At FirstBank, the company is currently running Office XP and is looking to migrate to Visual Studio Tools for Office and Office 2007, said Greg Mestas, distributed applications manager at the company.

While features such as the ribbon UI in Office 2007 may make things easier for developers, Mestas is not so sure what the benefit is for end-users.

"Most of our people use Word and Excel, and Word and Excel are still Word and Excel," Mestas said. "They've had a lot of the same features release over release. So the biggest benefit for us [in migrating] is staying on a supported platform, to put it bluntly," he said.

The bank is starting a pilot project on SharePoint for office automation. "We're trying to get rid of all that paper and all that manual process and create some workflows and InfoPath forms as a replacement," Mestas said.

An official at SharePoint applications developer Consejo applauded Microsoft's Open XML document initiative as a benefit for Office application development.

"Their whole Open XML is proving to be very comforting to most developers because in the old days, when it was binary, that not necessarily ideal," said Virgil Pate, development manager at Consejo.

Also, the ribbon UI makes it simpler to modify the user interface, he said. But Microsoft could have done a better job in migrating users to the ribbon, Pate stressed.

Recalling his company's experience with SharePoint, Pate said it is easy to get started developing extensions, but support has been slow, he said.

Pate expressed caution about the Office Live platform, in which Microsoft offers online versions of software. While calling Office Live a great idea, Pate wondered about its security and reliability. "If they ever start to go down or start to have lag time, it's going to hurt them," he said.

Another developer, Marcin Geborik, of developer Computer Plus of Krakow, Poland, cited good experiences in developing for SharePoint but found difficulty in working with Microsoft Office Project Server.

"As a matter of fact, Project Server's API is just not good," Geborik said.

Meanwhile, Microsoft with version 2 of Office Live Small Business this week restructured the offering, providing users with a free domain for the first year as well as a free Web site. After the first year, the domain costs $14.95. 

Subscribers get 100 free e-mail accounts each with 2GB to 2.5GB of storage, as well as services such as contact management.

Also, Microsoft with its Unified Communications platform plans to bulk it up with instant messaging capabilities that can find persons linked in a workflow chain.

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