Office Apps Are Coming, Microsoft Says, Just Be Patient

Microsoft's Office Store still feels more like Goodwill than a Target - but that's not necessarily a bad thing, according to Microsoft. 

If you think there are too few apps in the Office App Store, a Microsoft executive begs to differ. And as Microsoft moves closer to Office 2013's business launch on Feb. 27, the company expects more apps to be added both by the company itself as well as third-party developers.

Following the consumer launch of Office 2013 in January, the App Store's cupboard might have been considered somewhat bare. In total, there are about 200 apps within the Office Store, according to Richard Riley, a director at Microsoft, whose responsibilities include both SharePoint as well as the Office App Store.

Riley won't commit to a number of apps that would be added to the Office App Store, but he promises that there will be "much more than the 200" that are there now. "In terms of momentum and as we go through, I think in the next six months or so we'll see that momentum pick up and carry forward," Riley says. "I don't feel bad where we are. I really don't."

(See also Microsoft: Buy Office 365, Not Office 2012. Or You'll Get Left Behind)

Last July, Microsoft outlined the development model for Office 2013, the current version of Office  - a subscription version, known as Office 365, is also available. Both Office 2013 and Office 365 replaced the familiar Microsoft Basic for Applications with a Web-based language model that essentially takes an XML file and combines it with a Web app, using familiar Web languages like CSS, HTM, and JavaScript. Since the app runs outside of Office, if it breaks, only it crashes - not Office.

While the reliance on Web languages might have made a bit difficult for traditional Office developers, the approach theoretically opened up Office to a vast number of Web developers who may have never developed for Office before.

Microsoft's Attempts To Jumpstart Office App Development

"Historically, if you wanted to build something for Office, like if you wanted to build an an add-in for Word, you would have to have all of the Visual Studio add-ins for that have to understand C++, have to understand .NET wrapper code - there was a learning curve there," Riley says. "Like most developers these days, if it was different; you had to go spend time and figure out how to use it. That barrier no longer exists. If you understand how to write for the cloud app model, if you understand how to write Javascript and HTML, you understand REST, you can pretty much get started immediately without having to go wade through a big reference book and how to get going." 

Riley says Microsoft has been bringing existing Office developers, as well as developers new to the platform, into "jumpstart events," where the company puts dives deep into the technology. Afterward, the developers go away, develop, and then return for an "acceleration day," where those developers receive assistance to push those apps into the store.

"We can now credibly talk to a ton of new developers that historically would have ignored us," Riley says. "And actually go to them with a very credible technology story, but also a really significant market opportunity... when you look at all of the Office and SharePoint licenses in existence today, there is an opportunity for a developer to make a difference, to make a ton of money off of the back of the Office or Sharepoint store."

Riley said that he considers Microsoft to essentially be in the middle of the Office launch, where the consumer edition was released first and then businesses will be encouraged to sign on at the end of the month. "We haven't finished launching from an app perspective," he says.

It might be reasonable to think that Microsoft would have launched the App Store with a number of launch partners, big-name software developers whose products would instantly have added cachet to Microsoft's rollout. Riley doesn't agree. 

No-Name Apps Are OK

"I think it depends on how you look at it," Riley explains. "You don't need big names to add value to a product. Would no-name graphics capability that you could get for free from the App Store, to make your Excel spreadsheet sing, and get a pat on the back from your boss, be more useful than a big-brand-name thing that wouldn't get you the same result? So we have the quality here, and in my experience, we don't need a laundry list of famous icons."

Fair enough. Unfortunately, when asked to highlight some of the "no-name" apps that could make Office "sing," Riley turns back toward the Bing apps that Microsoft had launched previously. 

The hope of Microsoft's Office 2013 model is that it can combine live data sources from the Web into Office documents, such as combining sales data from a customer relationship management database with the Bing maps web service to create a more effective sales report. Riley promises that here will be a growing number of apps within Excel that help users visualize data. And there are hopeful signs: the Microsoft Oscar plugin for Excel, an Olympics medal tracker, an ESPN fantasy-football app. Riley also makes the point that corporations will write and publish their own internal apps that general Office users will never see.

Still, Microsoft needs more. When asked, for example, if there is any app that could take advantage of the datasets hosted by the U.S. government on data.gov, Riley replies that isn't aware of any. He then adds he would make a note to see what would be needed to make those sources available.

Of course, there's a larger question: For all of its reach, is Microsoft's Office simply too small a platform for those developers used to the huge installed base of iOS, Android and all of the other Web platforms? For a small app developer like Gliffy, no. Others may not see it that way, though. Opening Office to the Web allows more developers to enter Office. Only time will tell if they see it as a lucratie marketplace, or as a closet.