Best kept Office 365 secret: The apps

Credit: Collin Harvey via Flickr

The best kept secret of Office 365 is the apps.

The new version of Office 365 launches for consumers today. Taking a cue from mobile platforms with integrated, easy-to-use app stores, Microsoft is letting users browse for, download, and use apps from within each of the Office products. The apps available at launch hint at how useful the apps may be -- if end users realize they're available and if developers decide to build more of them.

At the start, there are just around 200 apps available, including apps for integrated LinkedIn, Twitter, Bing Maps, and Bing search functionalities.

To browse for or access apps in Word, for example, users go to the Insert tab and click on an icon that says Apps for Office. A dropdown offers quick access to recently used apps. Hitting “see all” in the drop down opens a window where users can choose from apps they’ve downloaded, view featured apps, or visit the Word app store in the browser.

The Bing Image Search app displays a column on the right side of the open Word document. Highlighting a word or phrase in the document kicks off an image search, with results appearing in the right side column. Users can drag and drop images into their documents.

A similar app performs a news search for highlighted words. Users can even have both apps running at the same time.

Other Word apps include dictionaries, diagram templates, and foreign language dictionaries. An app contributed by eFax lets eFax customers send faxes directly from Word. Another from Avery office products offers templates for Avery products like labels and business cards.

Excel has some nice apps too. A Bing Maps app will plot data on a map. During an Office 365 demo day for the press last week, Microsoft executives showed a spreadsheet with a cost of living index for the U.S. Running the Bing Maps app plotted the data on the map, indicating the cities from the index with circles varying in size based on the data. A geographic heat map app similarly plots data on maps.  

Some of the most useful apps are available for Outlook, but they are only available to people who will be using Office 365 combined with Exchange 2013. Apps for Outlook are particularly nice because once downloaded they become available only in circumstances that you’re likely to want them. The content in emails triggers them.

Microsoft execs showed off how a few of the Outlook apps work. After clicking on a message header to display the message in the right side preview pain, the names of relevant apps appeared near the top of the message content. In one example, the message was from a person the recipient didn’t know. That made a link to the LinkedIn app appear above the content of the message.

Clicking on the link doesn’t launch a window or an app; it elegantly adds a pane above the content of the email where the user can send a LinkedIn invitation to connect to the message sender. “You can interact with LinkedIn within the email,” said Richard Riley, a Microsoft director.

He showed off a similar app for Bing Maps. When an email message included a physical address, a link to the Bing Maps app appeared along the top of the email message. Clicking on it displayed a map with the address plotted, still within the original email message rather than a pop up. Users can manipulate the map in the same way they would on the Bing Maps web page, switching to satellite view or zooming in.

Microsoft hasn’t kept the Office apps a secret, but there has been little buzz about them. In fact, during the demo day, Microsoft invited three consumers to present about their experiences over the past few months using Office 365. None mentioned the apps and when asked, one said he thought they weren't available -- when in fact they were.

However, the company has a few good strategies for helping the apps go viral and attracting developers, who may figure out new ways to market the apps.

When one person uses an app and sends the file to another person, the recipient gets the app too. It's then up to the developer how to handle the new user. If it’s a paid app, the developer can opt to give the new user a 30 day trial or display a screen where the user can buy it immediately.

“It’s a really viral model,” Riley said.

To attract developers, Microsoft is letting developers build Office apps using Web technologies like HTML5, CSS, JavaScript, and REST. They can use Microsoft tools like Visual Studio, but they don’t have to. Similarly, they can run the apps on Microsoft’s Azure cloud back end, or use Amazon Web Services if they like.

“Now we can talk to developers we’ve never talked to before. Web devs,” said Riley.

He’s promoting Office apps as a massive opportunity for developers who will have the opportunity to reach the millions of people likely to use Office in the future.

Also, it's a consistent development platform across Office and Sharepoint so individual developers can build apps for any of the Office apps as well as Sharepoint. “You no longer have to say you’re a Word dev or an Excel dev,” Riley said.

The revenue share on paid apps is 80 percent for developers with the rest going to Microsoft.

Also, the development platform works such that the third party apps run separately from the Office app. So Office can be upgraded without requiring an update from the third party app, and vice versa. That should relieve big headaches in IT departments used to spending a lot of time managing upgrades.

In addition, since the apps don’t run in the context of Office, if an app fails or has bad code, “Word happily chugs away,” Riley said.

For IT admins, Microsoft has included some controls and used an architecture for the apps designed to avoid potential problems. Administrators can turn off the public store so employees can’t download apps from it. They can also create a company store, populating it with suggested apps for workers. IT admins can then run reports to see which workers are using which apps and if certain apps are crashing often.

Riley said he expects that companies will let workers access the store because doing so could boost worker productivity. Also, he said he was surprised at the results of research Microsoft did into how much end users are willing to pay for to improve their own productivity. “People said they would pay hundreds out of pocket and not expense it” if it meant they could get their jobs done quicker, he said.

It's true that the apps could improve productivity for users -- but only if they know the apps are available in the first place.

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