Microsoft announces SaaS developer pack for Outlook

Microsoft has launched its first tool to support its latest software as a service (SaaS) efforts to supplement desktop applications by connecting them to online sites and systems.

The Outlook + Services Reference Bits pack simplifies development of add-ins for Outlook that work with web services, combining information from your calendar, contacts or email with online services or exposing that information as a web service that tools and applications can access.

Add-ins won't be restricted to working with Microsoft's own web services; they can access information and publish to third party systems and web services, connecting Outlook to websites or in-house tools. Instead of creating an appointment by hand for a flight, you could install an Outlook plug-in from British Airways or Virgin that would put the details of any flights you book into your calendar automatically and update them if anything changes. A weather plug-in could give you the forecast for the location of a meeting or contact, or you could list your planned trips in a Facebook application directly from Outlook rather than having to copy them into another online service.

Developers can already create such services using Microsoft's Visual Studio Tools for Office but it can be a complex process. Available immediately, Outlook + Services includes a framework with source code that can be viewed and re-used, tools that plug into Visual Studio Tools for Office and best practices on how to build add-ins and connect them to services.

"With the existing development tools for Office you have to figure what code you need to write, how to plug that in to services; we provide a framework abstracting this and it just makes life for the developer a whole lot easier," said Soma Somasegar, corporate vice president of Microsoft's Developer Division.

Microsoft will also make Visual Studio Tools for Office more widely available. It is currently a separate option, but will be included in the Visual Studio 2008 release, opening up Office add-on development tools to many more developers at no extra cost.

Outlook + Services is the first of a series of shared source Software + Services 'booster packs' to help third-party developers create connected services for desktop applications. Microsoft's SaaS strategy is intended to deliver desktop-like software that works well on a regular standalone PC, but is better when you're online, in an attempt to keep people using rich desktop tools rather than moving to browser-based competitors like Google Apps.

Microsoft also confirmed that both Visual Studio 2008 and version 3.5 of the .NET Framework will be available to developers at the end of November, just in time to meet Microsoft's deadline of shipping in 2007 - although the official launch won't be until February 2008.

Mary Branscombe

Mary is a freelance business technology journalist who has written for the likes of ITPro, CIO, ZDNet, TechRepublic, The New Stack, The Register, and many other online titles, as well as national publications like the Guardian and Financial Times. She has also held editor positions at AOL’s online technology channel, PC Plus, IT Expert, and Program Now. In her career spanning more than three decades, the Oxford University-educated journalist has seen and covered the development of the technology industry through many of its most significant stages.

Mary has experience in almost all areas of technology but specialises in all things Microsoft and has written two books on Windows 8. She also has extensive expertise in consumer hardware and cloud services - mobile phones to mainframes. Aside from reporting on the latest technology news and trends, and developing whitepapers for a range of industry clients, Mary also writes short technology mysteries and publishes them through Amazon.