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Cashing In on the New Cloud App Model for Office

Microsoft launched a developer contest on Wednesday with a top prize of $10,000 for the winning Office or SharePoint 2013 app.

Microsoft unveiled a new app model for its Office 2013 productivity suite last month that could offer developers another path to software revenue, starting next year. To get things rolling, the company launched a developer contest on Wednesday with a top prize of $10,000 for the winning Office or SharePoint app.

Enterprise environments have long relied on Component Object Model (COM) add-ins, Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) scripting and other tools to enhance Microsoft Office for specialized and repetitive tasks. The Cloud App Model, unveiled at an Office 2013 Preview event in San Francisco on July 16, formally introduces HTML/JavaScript Web apps as the new paradigm for Office and SharePoint extensibility.

The Cloud App Model is an attempt to improve portability between on-premise Office software, Office Web apps found in Office 365, and streamlined mobile applications. The company is introducing an app store model that will allow Office 2013 users to access cloud apps from Word, Excel, Outlook and SharePoint. Apps for Office and SharePoint "roam and follow the user," said Richard Riley, Microsoft's director of technical product management for SharePoint.

Office cloud apps, which can access Web technologies and services, use a JavaScript API to interact with Office applications (Word documents, Excel spreadsheets and Outlook emails) to create dynamic content and data visualizations. According to Microsoft, Office cloud apps consist of a Web page (HTML and JavaScript) and an App Manifest (XML). They are self-contained (sandboxed) and hosted in Office 2013 client applications. Cloud apps for Office can take the form of task panes in Word, Web-based content apps in Excel, or Outlook panes activated by rules driven by email context. Unlike add-ins, cloud apps, which are saved in Office as part of the file format, travel with documents and spreadsheets, even if they are shared with other users.

Despite the app store model, Apps for Office and SharePoint 2013 can be hosted by on-premise Web servers, SharePoint, Windows Azure, or other providers including Amazon Web Services. Organizations will have the option to "turn off the store" and host an app catalog for employees inside of their firewall, to meet governance and security requirements.

Existing and newly built Office add-ins will not be available through the Office Store, however. The Cloud App Model and Office Store add another "pipeline" for developers to sell Office extensions, according to Brian Jones, Microsoft group program manager for the Office Solutions Framework. COM add-ins and VBA scripting are still supported in Office 2013.

Windows RT, the version of Windows 8 developed for tablets, does not support add-ins, however. Office Home and Student 2013 RT is expected to preview on Microsoft Surface and other Windows RT tablets, when Windows 8 becomes generally available on October 26. Riley declined to comment on whether the new Cloud App Model is supported in Office RT. "We're not ready to discuss Office RT," he said.

Free, Browser-Based IDE
Apps for Office and SharePoint 2013 can be developed using standard Web development tools, or Microsoft's new Office 365 Developer Preview, which creates a SharePoint Online Developer site for deploying and testing apps. You don't have to install the Office 2013 Preview; you can run Content apps in the Excel Web App.

After registering for the Office 365 preview, you install the "Napa" Office 365 Development Tools to the Developer site. Napa, which is an App for SharePoint, is a free browser-based IDE that runs in Internet Explorer, Google Chrome and Safari, among other browsers. The Napa preview offers four templates: App for SharePoint, Task Pane app for Office, Content App for Excel and Mail app for Office. You can write an app in Napa, or save it in Visual Studio and use Microsoft Office Developer Tools for Visual Studio 2012.

In an effort to broaden the opportunity beyond Microsoft developers, the company says it's committed to supporting standard Web technologies and protocols. The Cloud App Model supports HTML5, XML, JavaScript, CSS3, REST APIs, OAuth and OData. Developers can also use PHP, C# and VB.NET for server-side code. The Cloud App Model promises easier deployments, updates and testing throughout the application lifecycle, according to Riley.

The Office and SharePoint stores will use an app approval process, which is similar to Microsoft's Windows Store and Windows Phone Marketplace. Developers must register, and then submit their apps to the Seller Dashboard for validation and listing in the Office and SharePoint Stores, which are product-specific. The revenue model for Office and SharePoint apps is slightly more favorable to developers, however. Microsoft is offering an 80/20 split versus the 70/30 model that is used in its other online app stores. "People are also likely to be willing to pay more for productivity software," Riley said.

The Office 2013 wave of products, which will include SharePoint 2013, is expected in the first half of next year. Developers can sign up for the Microsoft Office 365 Developer Preview to try out Napa, and get more resources at dev/office.com. The deadline for submissions in the Apps for Office and SharePoint Developer Contest is December 20, 2012. Microsoft recommends submitting applications to the Seller Dashboard no later than November 20, 2012 to ensure that they get validated and listed in the Office Store, which is one of the contest requirements.

About the Author

Kathleen Richards is the editor of RedDevNews.com and executive editor of Visual Studio Magazine.

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