Office 2013: Where Are All The Apps?

Last week, Microsoft shipped five Bing apps for its new Office suite, offering everything from maps integration to image search. That's great, as far as it goes. But the bigger issue is the lack of apps for Office 2013, period.

The question that Microsoft's latest version of Office seeks to answer is a profound one: There's still no real difference between the Word document you see on your screen and the one you print out - they're both static pages

If Office 2013 had taken off the way Microsoft had expected it to, the five Bing apps it added - Bing Finance for Excel, Bing Maps for Excel, Bing Image Search for Word, Bing News Search for Word and Bing Dictionary for Excel and Word - would be some handy helper tools contributed by the Bing team. But as it stands, they are pretty much the flagship Office apps within the Office Store - and that is a real problem.

What Office 2013 Promised

Sure, recent versions of Office allow authors to hyperlink other locations on the Web, add clip art and even Excel spreadsheets. But the basic functionality is preserved no matter what format you view it in.

Office 2013 promised a lot more. Within Office 2013, which began rolling out last week, users and developers can swap out Microsoft's now-discarded Visual Basic for Windows with modern markup including HTML, CSS and JavaScript. One of the promises of Office 2013 was to invigorate static documents with live data pulled from a number of sources: a paper on the near-term economic prospects of Appalachia, for example, could theoretically include real-time data of coal futures and farm forecasts.

The end goal, you might say, was to provide so compelling an online experience as to make users feel cheated if they were forced to print the document out. 

But we ain't there yet.

What Office (Hasn't) Delivered

In fact, it's difficult to find any apps, period, inside the Office Store, let alone those that promise to deliver live data. What's truly surprising isn't the relative dearth of apps (I counted 48 for Word, for example) but that the one Office component I would have expected to have been flooded with helper apps - Excel - wasn't. There were just 14 apps for Excel in the Store at press time, and many of those are cross-category (Merriam-Webster's dictionary, for example, straddles both Word and Excel). There are just two for Microsoft Project, and three for Outlook (with several more for the Outlook Web app). Clearly, the largest problem Microsoft faces here is simply attracting new apps to the Office Store.

Microsoft needs some killer third-party apps, and, so far, the company hasn't received them. In fact, most Office apps are simply applications that are launched in the right-hand pane, with information that can be cut and pasted into the text. Apps like Gliffy, which lets users to create embeddable flowcharts and other tools that are then dynamically updated on target Office documents if they change, provide a hint of what Office 2013 should be able to do.

What About The Enterprise Apps?

To be fair, the gateway to live data has traditionally been the enterprise database, which has then served as a data source for Excel spreadsheets, which can then be embedded inside other documents. It's reasonable to believe that some of the corporations that have standardized on Office 2013 are creating their own Office apps for internal use, and simply not publishing them to the Store. 

Still, there has been a general lack of enterprise-focused tools, period, within the Office Store. (Some, like Salesforce, haven't used the store to deploy their Office integration tools; Omni's Riva syncs Salesforce to Office 365, for example.)

There's nothing particularly wrong with the Bing apps Microsoft released - Bing Dictionary searches words, and the Bing Image Search does the same for images. One of the more dynamic apps is Bing Maps for Excel, which lets users embed live maps data within Excel. That's a start. I've asked Microsoft for examples of these powerful, dynamic apps that tap into the power of Office 2013, but so far I haven't received a response. And there are so few that I can conduct the hunt myself.

Is it fair to ask for these killer apps when Office has just launched? Yes, I think so. We in the tech press call them "launch partners," and their number and quality are early indicators of the value of the platform.

I would like to know more about the use of live data within Office to enhance both personal productivity and business analytics. But what I see so far is the same company that once forged a powerful ecosystem around Office now reduced to asking: "Is anyone out there?"

Image source: flickr/_e.t.