Redmond Previews Microsoft Office 2000 Developer -- MOD

It won't be available for at least 6 months, but Microsoft Corp. has already begun talking about the next version of Microsoft Office 2000 Developer, a k a MOD. After CEO Bill Gates announced the product during his keynote at Developer Days in early September, attendees got a chance to see early betas of the suite in action.

With MOD, developers can use Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) to integrate or automate the Office components -- Word, Excel, Access, PowerPoint and Outlook -- or to build custom applications built on top of these programs. "Office sits on so many desktops. ... [Developers] are looking for access to that application functionality," says Neil Charney, a lead product manager for Microsoft.

According to Charney, more than half of all developers use Office as part of any given custom solution. One of the reasons, he says, is that users are so familiar with the Office interface. "The end-user familiarity is key. There's no retraining," he says. "There's also the ability to take the content that's been created [in Office] and do something with it."

It makes sense to leverage Office components for custom solutions when appropriate, according to Dave Kelly, vice president of application strategies at the Hurwitz Group (Framingham, Mass.) "I think it's going to make the most sense when there is some tie-in to an Office application -- for example, if you're going to be generating a lot of reports," he says. "If you're doing true programming, number crunching or financial calculations, it may make more sense to use VB or another development tool."

MOD will contain version 6.0 of VBA, which is slated to include a number of productivity enhancements, including improved error handling, templates for automatically commenting code and a WYSIWYG string editor for embedding long scripts or complex SQL statements into VBA code. "Developers will see that it's more like VB," Charney says. "What we're really doing is blurring that line between VB and VBA."

Kelly agrees that VBA 6.0 shows improvement over earlier versions. "They've made the functionality deeper. It's a maturity," he says.

So how should developers decide when to use MOD and when to use VB? "It's really up to the developer as to where they want to put their code," Charney explains. "If the end user is going to be sitting in Office and needs some custom functionality, VBA would be the way to go."

In addition to the Office components, the suite will include FrontPage 2000, the Visual SourceSafe version control system, the Visual Basic for Applications editor and the Access 2000 Run Time, which enables royalty-free distribution of Access-based solutions on machines that do not have Access installed.

MOD also includes a new COM Add-In Designer, which enables developers to create custom features for Office applications and store them as fully compiled DLLs. For example, Charney explains, let's say a company wants its employees to use a central database to access customer names when creating documents. In the current version, a developer would have to create an Add-In feature for each Office application that would add a new button to the toolbar to access the database. With MOD, the developer would create one Add-In using the Designer, and that Add-In would be able to run in any application.

MOD will also include a new feature, called the Code Librarian, which developers will be able to use to index and search prewritten snippets of code. The Code Librarian will ship with more than 1,000 lines of sample code for automating Office applications.

MOD is scheduled to be available during the first half of 1999.