VSLive! SF 2007: Microsoft's Visual Studio Tools for Apps Debuts

Microsoft's Visual Tools for Apps (VSTA) is announced and its functionality demonstrated at VSLive! San Francisco 2007.

Watch the video of the session! (Running time: 56 minutes)

Microsoft's general manager for Visual Studio Tools for Office (VSTO) took advantage of her afternoon keynote speech at VSLive! San Francisco 2007 to announce the formal release of Microsoft Visual Tools for Applications (VSTA) and its SDK on MSDN ( It is also embedded in Office 2007, and anyone with InfoPath will find it is on their system now.

K.D. Hallman, the general manager, described VSTA as the successor to Visual Basic for Applications (VBA), aimed at providing .NET-based secure customization tools. She said VSTA uses standard .NET tools and a secure, reliable customization framework to accelerate custom solution development for software vendors, customers, and partners. It also enables new scenarios—notably workflow—with standardized, secure extensibility. Hallman also explained that VSTA's streamlined Visual Studio (VS) IDE provides you with familiar tools that leverage existing skill sets. She added that VSTA projects seamlessly graduate to full VS, and that VSTA inherits innovations in VS.

Security wasn't a primary concern when VBA came out. But now it's a core consideration, and Hallman hammered on this aspect. She pointed out that VSTA provides new levels of security and control. It's built on the .NET security model. FX software isolates add-ins and protects the host application. And you have control over what elements can be customized and who receives permissions.

VBA is arguably the most popular development environment in use today, and VSTA's creators, Hallman included, hope to appeal to the same developers with a set of standard tools and frameworks, in order to accelerate solution development by customers and partners. Flexible integration options range from using BASIC to macro recording, making it easier for IT departments to develop and manage.

The version of VSTA released during the event integrates VS's functionality to take advantage of Windows Forms and Web services. When "Orcas" (the next version of VS) ships, it and VSTA will take advantage of the .NET Framework 3.0 and other Orcas features described in Prashant Sridharan's opening keynote.

For example, VSTA provides a lightweight version of VS that you can integrate into applications so other users can customize and extend them. This key feature enables software vendors to provide users with carefully controlled customization so the users don't inadvertently damage applications' core functions.

Hallman asked Development Manager Eric Carter to demonstrate this built-in customizability with an application using VSTA and Microsoft Office InfoPath 2007. Carter described the demo application as one of several that integrate VSTA with InfoPath for filling out electronic forms with built-in validation and conditional formatting. According to Carter, around 30 percent of InfoPath applications need additional code, and VSTA addresses this need.

Carter showed how a municipality can automate the building permit process. Intellisense helps provide a Project Explorer overview when VSTA loads. Some menus are a little shorter than in VS, and the menu structure is simplified. But you can still expose objects in the host application's programming model—in this case InfoPath's. You can also run debugging in an external proc so the host application will not suffer if you have a problem with the added code.

But while the VSTA announcement was important, Hallman stressed VSTO's usefulness equally. Her pitch centered on the assumption that most of users already have Microsoft Office running on their desktops. So why not use the functionality in Office for your applications instead of reinventing the wheel? Moreover, Hallman pointed to the statistic that only 35 percent of enterprise data resides in back, in systems such as big Oracle and mainframe databases. The other 65 percent of data hides out in unstructured processes on knowledge workers' desks and servers. Accessing Office lets you reach the data that's hiding out in Excel spreadsheets, Access databases, Outlook Contacts files, and so on.

Of course, for many of you, the reason "why not" is that before Office 2007 and VSTO it just wasn't that easy to program against Office. No more. Hallman said a new breed of business solutions built on Office are leading the way from firms such as Duet and Dynamics, with Independent Software Vendor (ISV) Office Business Applications (OBAs) following. These apps are contextual, collaborative, easy to use, role-based, configurable, and adaptive, Hallman said.

For example, Excel has become an application. You can data bind it as a grid control to a Web service or a SQL database, and deploy it. And you don't have to design and test the implementing code—just the business logic for your particular solution.

Hallman made a business case for using Office programmatically. She claimed that ISVs can bid at a lower price, with a higher success rate for completing functioning projects on time, generating more repeat business.

She demonstrated Office automation with a demo that had the audience applauding. It added VSTO automating to Outlook so that when a customer sent an email, it would show up on the user's screen with a pane that included a photo of the customer and a graph of the customer's purchases, along with other relevant data—all generated automatically by integrating Outlook programmatically with company data.

Hallman stressed that the demo wasn't a programming tour de force—just an everyday example of VSTA's functionality and practicality.

About the Author

Lee The's first computer was a state-of-the-art unit with 48K RAM and a 1MHz processor. He has been writing and editing computer magazine articles since then, in between scuba diving trips. He's based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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