Posted on February 2, 2008. Filed under: Clarity, Microsoft, Technology, VSTO |

Seems like Microsoft is having a V Day, every day. Here’s a run down of the main V technologies/tools:

VSTS (Visual Studio Team System)

Firstly, Visual Studio. Visual Studio 2008 (the current version) is Microsoft’s IDE for building .NET based applications, be they Web, Desktop, Device or Microsoft Office based.

Visual Studio comes in a number of different versions, grouped into three main areas:

The premier version is called Visual Studio Team System 2008 Team Suite and includes everything from all the different-role based versions.

VSTO (Visual Studio Tools for Office)

VSTO is Microsoft’s tool set for building applications that run in Microsoft Office (eg Word, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint). They are built using Visual Studio.

Originally a replacement for VBA (Visual Basic for Applications) in Excel and Word, VSTO was made available in its first version approximately around the start of 2004. The most recent version – VSTO V3 – was delivered as part of Visual Studio 2008 in November 2007.

The aim of VSTO is to provide tools for developers to build on top of Office as a platform. Using VB.NET and/or C#, developers can use Visual Studio to build add-in for most of the Office 2003 and 2007 applications, including Word, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint, InfoPath and Visio. SharePoint and Groove development is also possible, al though not directly targeted.

(See also my further thoughts on VSTO here)

VSTA (Visual Studio Tools for Applications)

VSTA is a customisation toolkit for allowing your application to be extended (using .NET). You are basically exposing your application’s object model in a form that can be built upon using Visual Studio. You can even embed a cut-down version of Visual Studio into your application to allow customers to extend it without having to install Visual Studio.

If they do have Visual Studio installed, they’ll be able to built add-ins for your application.

VSTA comes from the same Microsoft product group as VSTO and shares a similar architecture. Here’s how they relate to each other:

Microsoft has a product (eg Outlook) that they want you to be able to extend. They use VSTA to allow their product (Outlook) to be extended using Visual Studio. They call their extension toolset VSTO.

(Note: They don’t embed the cut-down version of Visual Studio into Outlook, but the concept is similar to how they provide the macro editor embedded into Office.)

VSTA is reasonably new – the first version was announced in early 2006. The second version is due in early 2008.

VSX (Visual Studio Extensions/Extensibility)

It’s easy to get confused between VSTA and VSX. The difference is that with VSTA you provide extensibility for your application, whilst with VSX you build new extensions for Visual Studio. With VSX you are building something new onto the Visual Studio IDE.

Code Magazine recently had an entire issue devoted to VSX.

VSX is part of the Visual Studio Ecosystem of products, delivered via the Visual Studio 2008 SDK.

Microsoft has been focusing on opening up extensibility for Visual Studio a lot lately. Although the ability to do so has been around for a while, it is now free (previously it was licensed at a cost), licensing restrictions have been toned down, and the Visual Studio Shell has been released (meaning you can build Visual Studio Add-ins without even needing Visual Studio installed).

Also, a number of open source projects have appeared on CodePlex, including the World of Warcraft AddOn Studio.

Other V words:

VSS (Visual SourceSafe)

Microsoft’s long running source control product has been superseeded in many ways by the source control elements of Team Foundation Server, however VSS is still promoted and supported. Ideal for smaller development teams.

Volta (Volta)

A new initiative from Microsoft labs, as opposed to a product as such, this is a process of so called tier splitting, whereby the Volta technology takes a traditional WinForms application and splits it out into client and server tiers/components, all held together with Volta goodness. The server tiers can be transformed to being web based (JavaScript usage features heavily in this case).


I think we all know this one. Microsoft Vista is an operating system, and the successor to Windows XP. 

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VSTO: How Do I videos by Steve Hansen

Posted on January 12, 2008. Filed under: VSTO |

I’ve linked to these a bit over on my link blog last year, but I think they warrant a dedicated post here.

I’ve been spending a fair bit of time with VSTO lately, and I’ve found Steve Hansen’s How To videos to be one of the best resources in getting me started.

What I particularly like is that he takes interesting ideas as his sample examples. For instance: how to put a WPF Action Pane in Excel, or how to Search SharePoint from Word. No ‘Hello World’ sleep inducers here.

The other thing I like is that most between 10 and 20 minutes in length. Watch one whilst you’re having breakfast. Or lunch. Too easy.

[Last year I tried to get through some of the TechEd videos but found it too difficult due to their length. At over an hour each I could never get through in a single sitting and always found myself coming back to a half watched session wondering where I had got up to.]

Short videos is the way forward.

Here’s a few links to Steve’s videos that I watched and found useful:

There are plenty more on the VSTO How Do I videos page.

I’ve also been checking out Beth Massi’s excellent How Do I videos on VB and LINQ – but more on those another time.

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2008: The Year of VSTO

Posted on January 6, 2008. Filed under: Microsoft, Technology, VSTO |

There’s been a number of predictions made about technology for 2008, and of course a list of disappointments for the past year. Considering that no ones really takes any of them very seriously, then why not add my own 🙂

Here’s my prediction:
2008 will be the year that Office Business Applications go mainstream*.

And by Office Business Applications (OBAs) I’m interested primarily in applications built using Microsoft Visual Studio Tools for Office (VSTO) technologies**. Word, Excel, Outlook and PowerPoint are the main platforms targeted.

Outlook is the future  

My main focus will be on Outlook because it is the program (IMO) that is used by the most people, and for the most time during each day (ie ‘everyone’ has Outlook open all day). (Word and Excel are of course close behind).

Outlook has over 450 million users (admittedly most are not yet on Outlook 2007) and this will only increase in the coming year.

But why hasn’t this happened already?

Hurdles so far
Reason 1: Toolset

VSTO, even though it is in its third version is still hard to learn. There are still significant hurdles to cross, but it is getting much better. Many of the security and deployment concerns have been addressed, and the breadth of material and online help available is growing steadily.

Reason 2: Mindset

However, the main reason for the lack of mainstream* movement so far is because people are still caught up with matching VSTO applications to Office functional context.

Thus, they think (incorrectly in my Web 2.0 opinion) that an Outlook add-in should relate to an already existing Outlook task eg helping with email, or contact, a to do item etc.

Time to rethink I say.

We should start building all kinds of applications into Outlook, especially those that have nothing to do with normal Outlook activities.

Changing our mind set

And ironically the catalyst for this will be games.

I predict that there will be a rash of games built into task panes of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and most importantly Outlook.
Sound crazy? Yeah, I know…

But wait.

Imagine having Poker, Sudoku, Scrabble, Chess, Minesweeper and other games hanging off your Outlook 2007 To-Do Bar. Just sitting under the calendar and above your task list. Perhaps in a task pane of your email, constantly there as you go through each item. (With a ‘boss’ key of course 🙂

And it won’t stop there.

Follow the Facebook model

Facebook really upped their traction when they added the developer tools to allow applications to be built into the platform.
It is a simple conceptual jump to see how this can be easily transferred to Office.

The key of course is that many of the Facebook applications available have nothing to do with social networking (ie they are using a social networking platform simply as a developer platform, focusing on the reach, not the social networking nature).


– So, think of any Facebook application that you currently use, and simply transfer it to Outlook.

– Next, think of any gadget currently in your Vista side bar and then imagine it in an Outlook task pane.

– Further, open it up to Skype and IM, all built into Outlook, along with Twitter and other communication tools.

And the list goes on…

Key point

The key is to use Outlook (and Office) as a developer platform, and stop limiting it to just an email, contact, calendar, to-do list related platform.


Microsoft Office is a platform. Let’s start using it as such for ALL application types***, whether they be directly related to an Office function or not. Think about reach, not functional context.

And finally

Look out for VSTOgames.com later this year…


* Mainstream – there are a lot of OBAs in enterprises already of course, so when I talk of mainstream, I am referring to that adoption rate where non-IT friends and family are happily installing the applications. Various Outlook add-ins (Plaxo, LinkedIn, etc) have come close to bridging this gap – we just haven’t had the killer Outlook app yet…

** For those not familiar with VSTO (Visual Studio Tools for Office) it is a set of tools for building applications into Office programs using Visual Studio and .Net.

*** By application types, I mean let’s make our Outlook add-ins relate to anything. Obviously, I’m not suggesting we re-write our huge standalone Winform apps into Outlook 🙂



It was Scott Scovell (a former work colleague, now making waves in the BizTalk community) who first put me on to the whole Office applications idea. Three years ago he was telling me how we should be building some of our company apps into Outlook (I wasn’t convinced at the time, but as usual he was right…)

However, for me it wasn’t until I heard Andrew Coates present on VSTO at TechEd 2007 last year that the penny finally dropped. His excellent ‘Standing on the Shoulders of Giants‘ post in September was the clincher.


Note: This post is covered under my new Disclaimer ‘terms’.

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