2008: The Year of 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’.


By Craig Bailey