Ty Anderson

Apps for Office revisited

It’s the New Year with new beginnings and all those similar things. A good number of people are no doubt taking stock of last year and setting goals for this year. If you are true Type A personality, you did this back in October and are almost ready for your 6-month self evaluation. If so, good luck, I hope it goes well for you.

Me? I’m still thinking through these things. I give myself until the end of January. When I started, I began thinking through what I do for a living and its prospects for the future. I refer, of course, to Office development. I know what works and I think I understand where Microsoft is headed in the future.

If you have been reading this blog, (I hope) you read the post I wrote proclaiming the Office App Store dead-on-arrival (DOA). I want to revisit this topic to see how well my thoughts of nearly a year ago stood-up.

The key points from last year’s post are:

  1. I like Office and I like Office 365. I think they are solid… the best Office suite in the market.
  2. The future of Office extensibility is the Apps for Office model.
  3. The Apps for Office extensibility model is weak and will not be accepted by developers nor users.
  4. A moderate rant of “doom and gloom”.

So, how’d I do? Let’s review.

Status of the Office Store

It’s been almost eleven months since I compiled some stats regarding the number of apps in the Office App Store. Back then, the app store had only recently open so I cut it some slack and hoped for some real adoption. Last March, the app store had 120 apps for Excel, Outlook, and Word combined.

Today? Well, for all supported Office apps (Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint, Project, SharePoint, and Word), the combined app total is a whopping 318. Here is a breakdown of the app total by Office application and app category.

Breakdown of the app total by Office application and app category

The total for Excel, Outlook, & Word apps is 211. That’s a 76% increase over last year. A 76% increase is impressive if you are discussing large numbers. When 91 additional apps represent a 76% increase you don’t have growth. You have hobbyists who are tinkering and having a bit of fun with the platform. You have “tire-kickers” taking the API for test drive by publishing an app to see what happens.

With 318 total apps… what you have is stagnation. Stagnation is the opposite of platform adoption.

If you take a detailed look at the apps, you will find that most apps superfluous. They either do something Office already does or they serve as “gateway” apps to a vendor’s real version of the application. By “real”, I mean a VBA, VSTO, or COM add-in version.

Shine a little light Microsoft?

I’m not surprised by the lack of adoption. I won’t even say “I told you so” because I think I wrote what the Office developer community was already thinking. I took a look at Office.com today just to see what type of emphasis the App Store receives on the site.

The Answer? None!

What type of emphasis does the App Store receive at Office.com? None!

The App Store is so inconspicuous as to be completely hidden. There is a menu item labeled “Store”… but that’s it. Sometimes what companies (and people) don’t say speaks more loudly than what they do say. In the case of Apps for Office the lack of emphasis says everything… apps are not a compelling reason for users to adopt Office (traditional & Office 365)

To me, the Office.com screenshot says:

  • “Office is all you need”
  • “Office is enough”

Okay fine. But why, then, does Microsoft continue to invest in an additional extensibility model?

What’s the point of the Apps for Office model?

This question is easier to answer than you might think… especially when you have an opinionated writer typing away. The answer to this question is the following:

  • Devices are changing everything: Users have changed how they consume content. Microsoft needs to support devices of all shapes and sizes and operating systems. The easiest way to provide this support is via web-based technologies like HTML, CSS, & JavaScript.
  • Kids these days: Kids entering the workforce today don’t know diddly-squat about Windows development. They know web, iOS, and Android. They also know tons of other non-Microsoft programming languages.
  • Services: That is, Software as a Service (SaaS). The major vendors are done with the traditional licensing models. Software now lives in the cloud and we pay monthly for it. Heck, we are now accustomed to this model and have convinced ourselves we like it.

Combine these three points together and what you see is Microsoft de-emphasizing Office extensibility. Yes, they still value it but they need it to be lighter weight and out-of-the-way.

But don’t worry

The truth is… for all the hub bub about Apps for Office… nothing has changed except we have a new way to extend apps.

  • VBA is alive and well
  • VSTO continues to ship with Visual Studio
  • COM Add-ins remain the best way to build professional Office solutions. Keep in mind that VSTO utilizes the COM add-in architecture.

The Apps for Office model might turn into something good. Microsoft says they will continue to invest and improve the API. We see proof of their investment with the recently released tools for building Cloud Business Apps.


Not much has changed in a year for the Office App Store but I don’t think this fact changes Microsoft strategy. They have large piles of cash and can afford to be patient. Just look at Windows Phone. Many tech journalist-writer-types wrote it off long ago. Yet, WinPhone shows signs of life and might become a real player. Microsoft is in the midst of a pivot. Office is perhaps the key player in this pivot.

For now, the App Store is just another option for extending Office. It’s not the most powerful option so consider your options and choose the model that fits your solution’s needs. I recommend you keep your eye on Apps for Office however, Microsoft is placing a large bet on its eventual success.

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  • Eric Legault says:

    Ditto! Maybe if they would support selling Mail Apps (instead of free only) and open up extensibility to Contacts and Tasks they’d see better adoption. (FWIW, Ty and I have screamed at Microsoft about this so they know – they just need to DO IT)

  • Peter Domke says:

    Thanks for this review of your comment from a year ago. In fact, your older statement was already helpful in the sense that it saved me a lot of time, since after reading I didn’t felt it necessary to do some basic research myself.

    I’d like to know which kind of business clients or business people Microsoft’s product managers are talking to. In nearly 20 years of Office development (starting with VBA, and using ADX COM add-ins now for most projects) I never meet somebody who wanted to see Twitter or Facebook information popping up when he types the name of a person in the text (I remember it started with Office XP smart tags, when it was “stock quotes” what popped up – ridiculous). Office Customization is all about “real content” (vs. social media content) and workflows. With “real content” I mean Excel spreadsheets containing project calculations, or structured Word documents, or manipulating Outlook mail, task, calendar and contact items. You need to generate quick a proposal from some input data – why not provide users with a macro-enabled Word template which sets the standard? You have 5 sites in your business which all have different letterheads? Without a macro-enabled template solution you end up with 5 letterhead templates. Great. Now you extend you business and need English and French letterheads too. Makes 15 templates. Would be easier with some macro-enabled stuff, or a COM add-in handling the localization, branding and sender’s information in an organized way.

    But I guess most hosted solutions provide only “dumb” templates (like in SharePoint, where a “template” in a document library is just a document with boilerplate text). So with our 15 letterhead templates we fall back to the dinosaurus area of text processing – even Word Perfect and Word 5.0 in 1990 had already more options.

    Office 365 may be a great solution to STORE documents online and to share documents, regardless of the hardware you’re using. For this, server-side code is necessary. Nothing new here, also other hosting solutions are built in this way. But why product managers claim now that “client-side programming is dead”? Do they try to tell us that the very restricted possibilities of the hosted Office are better than the rich possibilities for customization business users have when they use Office on a desktop computer? Finance people all over the world can enumerate cases in which the built-in functionality of Excel was not sufficient for their specific business case, so they are happy to create a solution quick and with low cost.

    Also the argument referring to “difficulties with distribution” of client-based solutions has nothing to with business reality. Each of my clients has administrators who are experienced in distributing software, or who are using distribution tools. I provide an msi setup – the rest is just a daily work item.

    So reading the Microsoft statements, I scratch my head.

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