Excel 2013 development – 7 questions developers should ask
Excel 2013 has plenty of new features. From Flash Fill to PowerPivot’s native engine, from Quick Analysis to the WebService() function there is plenty to excite the user base. But for Excel developer’s, the biggest news has to be the new Apps for Office extension framework.
Microsoft Excel has a long history of extension frameworks (e.g. VBA, XLLs, UDFs, VSTO, & COM). Each of these has their purpose and corresponding pros and cons. They work…and they work well. But Office (and Excel with it) is moving to the cloud. By “moving”, I really mean “embracing”.
Microsoft wants Office to work seamlessly on devices of all types (no word yet if that means multiple operating systems too). This means Office apps need to work on the desktop, on tiny devices, and on the web. By embracing cloud technologies, Office give developers a framework for building extensions that work “across the board”…on the desktop, on the tiny devices, and on the web.
This new extension framework appears like a no-brainer at first glance. You might even ask, “What took so long?”. If you do, I don’t blame you. But please note, that question is not part of today’s Q&A simply because I do not have an answer. Nonetheless, I’m glad to see this technology and look forward to building some solutions with it.
1. Will my current solutions work with Excel 2013?
Probably. Best I can tell, Microsoft has not changed or deprecated any of our beloved client solution frameworks (VBA, COM add-ins, XLLs, EDFs, and VSTO). That’s the good news. The “less than stellar” news is that Microsoft did not enhance the existing frameworks. Sure, they have been extended to support new objects like the ones listed on the RAD Excel blog but there are no new features to write about here. So let’s move quickly to question #2.
2. What are Excel 2013 content apps and what are task pane apps?
When you develop an app, the manifest file resides in the Office Store. When a user downloads your app, the manifest tells Office where your app resides. You can store your app on a web server of your choosing. After connecting to your app, Office displays within Excel. The illustration above shows an Excel 2013 Task Pane app.
Excel 2013 content apps
Using Excel 2013 Content Apps, you can take advantage of web technologies in real time. There is no need to wait for a new version of Excel to build support for it. Don’t like the chart types provided by Excel out-of-the-box? Build a content app that utilizes Highcharts JS. Need access to functions not offered by Excel or simply need them to act differently? Write your own and use a content app to work with the data in your worksheet. This is a brilliant move by Microsoft.
Excel 2013 task pane apps
Task panes reside next to the document, not in it. They are analogous to traditional Office task panes and should be utilized in a similar manner. The idea with Excel 2013 Task Panes apps is to give you a method for providing contextual help to users as they build or work with an Excel document.
3. What Excel objects can I access with using these apps?
|Object Name||My Description|
|AsyncResult||This object contains the result of a request. It will have the request status along with any errors.|
|Bindings (& Binding)||Contains a binding to a document section. You don’t call it directly or it will bark at you. Instead, you use one of the three supported binding types: MatrixBinding, TableBinding, or TextBinding. I figure these objects are where the rubber hits the road and will be used often.|
|Document||This is the document attached to your app. You call it like this: Office.Context.Document.|
|Office||Represents an instance of app, provides access to top-level API objects, and allows you to write a call-back function for the app’s Initialize event.|
|Settings||Every add-in or app needs this object.|
We don’t have access to the full object model. That stinks but I believe Microsoft is taking a solid step forward. Office is a COM-based system. The web isn’t and the web is kind of a big deal. Microsoft has to do something to integrate web technologies within Office. I’m hoping we don’t have to wait 3 years for Office.js to support more objects.
3. What other shiny new objects should garner my attention?
- New Stuff for Excel 2013 developers
- What’s new in Excel Services for developers
- Introducing Excel 2013
- Introduction to the Data Model and Relationships in Excel 2013
- Excel Web App – What’s now available in a browser near you?
4. Does Microsoft provide any guidance for how to design & build these apps?
As luck would have it, yes they do. The design guidelines are very helpful as are the best practices information. I think it will be easy to break these guidelines… there doesn’t appear to be any mechanism to enforce them. But breaking them is probably not in the best interests of the user (or you). I highly recommend Pieter’s write-up of the design guidelines. He does a great job interpreting them and providing an example app that implements them. His write-up is the second in the following list:
- Apps for Office UX design guidelines
- UX guidelines for Office 2013 Content and Task Pane Apps
- Best practices for developing apps for Office
- Following resource usage rules in apps for Office
5. What tools do I need to get going and build some “Apps for Excel” using the apps for Office model?
You can build them using Visual Studio… You can build them using NAPA (part of Office 365 Developer)… Heck you can build them using a text editor if you really want to…
6. I’m having trouble getting my head around this concept, can you point me toward some useful, real-world type, demos?
Ummm… maybe. It depends on how you define the terms “useful” and “real-world”. What I can do is point you toward some interesting demos. Will that do? I think the first item in this list comes close to answering question #6 in the affirmative. It’s early. Office 2013 consumer preview has been running in the wild for just over a month. But give it time and we’ll have better demos. By we, I mean Add-in Express.
- Designing the Medal Tracker Template
- Create your first content app for Excel
- Create a Bing Maps content app for Excel
- Create your first task pane app for Excel
7. Will you stop typing now and give me the link love?
Absolutely. A lot more content exists than I can cover here. For deeper dive, follow these links… read the articles and keep on reading!
- Apps for Office and SharePoint MSDN Portal
- Start Building Apps for Office :: Lots of lot of great links!
- Apps for Office core development topics
- Apps for Office and SharePoint Preview SDK
- Introduction to Office 2013 and SharePoint 2013 Development [Video]
- Develop task pane apps for Office 2013 with Visual Studio [Video]
- Develop content apps for Office 2013 with Visual Studio – [Video]
- Create document-based apps for Office 2013 – [Video]