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Office 11 gains developer tools

Microsoft debuts a product for customizing Office 11 applications based on its Visual Studio programming environment.

Microsoft plans to unveil on Monday a tool for customizing Office 11 applications based on its Visual Studio programming environment.

The new tool, code-named Visual Studio Tools for Office, exploits the data-sharing capabilities of XML (Extended Markup Language) to help developers create Office-based applications. The enhancements are designed to let companies tailor Microsoft Word and Excel applications to their specific corporate processes and to link "islands of data," said Robert Green, lead product manager for Visual Studio at Microsoft.

"Business processes are not well-integrated, particularly when they include data at the desktop. We're going to see much better interconnections," Green said.

The tool will work with the Office 11 versions of Word and Excel, which are supposed to become available by the middle of next year.

With Office being tied to Visual Studio, people who work with Microsoft languages Visual Basic and C# stand to benefit from an environment aimed specifically at professional developers. Programmers can also take advantage of the .Net Framework in Visual Studio.Net, which automatically generates much of the lower-level coding needed for networked applications.

Microsoft rival Sun Microsystems plans similar developments for its StarOffice suite of applications. By the middle of next year, Sun plans to release a version of that will let professional Java programmers customize StarOffice applications.

Microsoft Office developers use Visual Basic for Applications (VBA), which is employed by both professional developers and so-called power users, or businesspeople able to write scripts, or macros, to modify Office applications. When Office 11 comes out, Microsoft will enhance VBA with the ability to integrate Web services into Office applications, but will steer professional developers toward the Visual Studio for Office.

Visual Studio Tools for Office will exploit the increased support for XML within Office 11 documents. When the tool is released next year, customers will be able to set their own XML schema definitions, or document structures. Company- and industry-specific document definitions will give developers finer control of data within Word and Excel. For example, an application could automatically link information from a specific cell in an Excel spreadsheet to another application.

The new development environment will also introduce a "smart document application model," a series of tools for providing in-context information to Word and Excel documents. This feature will let developers, for example, manipulate the Task Pane in Excel to give people help tailored to the application or access to relevant back-end data, Microsoft executives explained.

Visual Studio Tools for Office will benefit IT administrators as well, Microsoft executives said. For maintenance and security and reasons, businesses can keep the code that provides the custom functions on network servers and restrict access to unknown Web sites.