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Microsoft Debuts Visual Studio Tools for Office

Microsoft Office is one of the most far-reaching client applications in the world, used or customized by nearly 3 million developers and more than 400 million users. With today’s launch of Visual Studio Tools for Office, Microsoft is hoping to provide developers with the tools they need to take advantage of the .NET Framework in the context of Office-based software.

In addition, Microsoft is pairing the Office Access 2003 Developer Extensions with the Visual Studio Tools package and is offering the package at an upgrade price to users of the previous Office Developer Edition products. The Access Developer Extensions provide tools for developers to create fairly elaborate customizations of Microsoft Access.

“Developers wanting to build solutions for Word and Excel will find greater productivity with Visual Studio Tools for the Microsoft Office System,” said Eric Rudder, senior vice president of the servers and tools group at Microsoft.

The purpose of the new tools is clear: to write code quickly to address any number of custom scenarios. For example, a company might want to write business logic that manages budget figures in an Excel spreadsheet, or populate a table in a Word document with sales figures obtained using an XML Web service.

Customization the Goal

According to Microsoft, developers already using Visual Studio .NET can repurpose their projects with Visual Studio Tools for Office to address these custom scenarios. To use the tools, you start with a Visual Studio .NET project and compose the code that will run from within the document or workbook.

Visual Studio builds the code that you write as a dynamic-link library (DLL) file, which you can then locate in any number of places, depending on the specific needs of the system. If the code is associated with a particular document used by a single user, it can be stored with the document on the user’s local hard disk.

If the code is associated with a workbook that is used by many people in a corporation — for example, an expense report workbook — you can store the code on a network share and then automatically download it to each user’s computer the first time the workbook is opened.

Because the code written with Visual Studio Tools for Office is “managed code,” you can use the built-in security features of the .NET Framework on the end user’s computer to control whether or not the code is trusted to be run.

The Visual Basic Option

While Visual Basic continues to be an important option for Office development — as it is installed automatically with Office Professional installations and can be used to develop customizations and macros very quickly — Visual Studio Tools for Office, according to Microsoft, will provide several advances in language choice and innovation, security, deployment and maintenance.

With the new set of tools, Microsoft is hoping to give developers better tools to build business systems using the familiarity of Excel and Word as the basic format or structure. Microsoft also hopes the tools will help developers integrate Office with corporate data and Web services, particularly in cases in which companies already are using the .NET Framework.

“Salesforce.com has been using our sforce platform and Visual Studio Tools to develop Starter Kits that address common business scenarios,” said Peter Gassner, senior vice president and general manager of the sforce products division at Salesforce.com. The first of these, available today at sforce.com, is a Microsoft Word-based proposal generator that uses Office 2003 to ease complex document approval processes.

“The opportunity to use these new tools in conjunction with Visual Basic .NET and Visual C# .NET to extend Microsoft Office 2003 is compelling,” Gassner said.

Creating Intelligent Solutions

Using Visual Studio Tools for Microsoft Office, you also can write business logic and data access code in Visual Basic .NET or Visual C# .NET to enforce business rules, access corporate data and integrate with Web services.

Using user-defined Extensible Markup Language (XML) schemas and XML Web services in Office 2003 editions, you can build documents and applications that connect with business processes and data behind the scenes. The results, according to Microsoft, are greater productivity for developers, a shorter learning curve for end users and more powerful solutions for businesses.

Retail pricing for Microsoft Visual Studio Tools for Office is US$499. Upgrade pricing of $199 is available for licensed owners of several qualifying packages. You can read more about Visual Studio tools on Microsoft’s developer network.

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