In July, Microsoft released the customer preview of Office 2013. Lost in the discussion of features and what the productivity suite will mean for Microsoft's tablet initiative is a complete reimagining of the model for Office and SharePoint, which that creates a whole new market for developers.
"This is the most significant change to Office and SharePoint in the last 15 years," says Richard Riley, a director in Microsoft's Office division in charge of the SharePoint product marketing team.
Microsoft is betting that its installed base of Office users—more than 1 billion strong—will allow it to translate the success of Apple's App Store and the Google Play store in the consumer sphere into an Office App Store that plays a similar role in the enterprise.
"The number of people that actually have Office is a huge addressable market for developers," adds Brian Jones, group manager of the Office Solutions Framework Team at Microsoft.
"If you are already an Office or SharePoint developer, you're going to love what we've done with the new model, while we continue to support your existing solutions," he adds. "If you aren't yet an Office developer, but you build web solutions, you're going to want to give us a big hug, as we're bringing you a huge set of potential customers."
Microsoft Introduces Cloud Application Model
"It's similar to the model you see with Facebook," Riley says. "Facebook isn't hosting the app you just added to your page, Zynga is. Facebook just asks for the right bits when you engage the app."
Microsoft has opened a new Office developer center as a central repository of documentation, discussions, tutorials and samples to help developers create these new apps.
Since the apps are inserted into documents via URL pointers, they travel with the document when it is shared with colleagues.
"It really is a brand new way to use Office and SharePoint," he adds. "Web standards have been key to the whole way we put this together."
Office, SharePoint Apps Tackle Docs and Data
Jones says he believes many users will be taken with the power apps bring to Excel. He shows off one app called Olympic Medal Tracker that gathers real-time online data about events at the London Olympics and inserts the data into a spreadsheet.
One app, called Bing Maps, maps the data to a world map inside the spreadsheet at the click of a button, and visualizes it as a heat map with proportionally sized bubbles over each country representing its performance in the games. Mousing over a bubble drills deeper into the data, displaying the number of gold, silver and bronze medals the bubble represents.
Another app, this one for Outlook, allows you to take notes on an email you've sent or received. The note is attached to the contact in question and comes up whenever you interact with that contact, creating a lightweight CRM function. Developers can use the same tools to build SharePoint apps, like a workflow add-on or conference room reservation system.
Developers can choose to release their apps for free or sell them from the Office App Store. Riley notes that Microsoft is not mandating pricing levels, but he says the paid apps will sell for a premium over many mobile apps because of the power of the tools and the richness of the experience.
New Tools for Administrators
But the new model isn't just about creating a new opportunity for developers around Office and SharePoint. It also provides new administration tools.
"We have designed apps to improve forward compatibility to avoid future migration blockers, to support versioning to make it easier to update and maintain, and to run in isolated processes in order not to impact Office and SharePoint performances," Jones says.
"We've made a huge investment around the overall lifecycle maintenance of these apps," he adds. "There's a very clear set of ways to manage the apps in your enterprise."
For instance, administrators will be able to audit all of their Office installs to see what apps are installed, and they have the power to turn off particular apps if necessary. Administrators have the choice of allowing their users full access to the Office App Store, or turning off that access and only allowing users to choose apps from an enterprise catalog.
Additionally, administrators can allow users to buy their own apps, or turn on a request process so administrators must approve app purchases. If a particular app is like to prove useful to many employees, the administrator can buy licenses in volume.
Thor Olavsrud covers IT Security, Big Data, Open Source, Microsoft Tools and Servers for CIO.com. Follow Thor on Twitter @ThorOlavsrud. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline and on Facebook. Email Thor at firstname.lastname@example.org