Microsoft Office: system, platform, or plergb?

Microsoft has announced that the first Microsoft Office System Developer Conference will take place in February at Microsoft's own Redmond campus. Just to emphasize the importance of Office, Bill Gates will be giving the keynote. A lot of the press is dutifully reporting this as the first Office developer conference - which it decidedly is not. There have been a long line of developer events for Office dating back over a decade. This is the first such event hosted by Microsoft for the Office System - which, of course, made its debut in 2003.

That little bit of careful wordplay puts me in the mind of the very useful word plergb. Plergb is a word that can be redefined as necessary, or at least as the user wishes to redefine it. Office, you may recall, started off as a suite (with the first version being magically numbered 4.3) and then mutated into a system when some server software was thrown into the mix. Along the way various Office evangelists have positioned it as a platform as well. Really, it would just be simpler to refer to the Microsoft Office Plergb, where Plergb is defined as whatever noun the marketroids are currently enamored of.

Anyhow...given that this is nothing like the first conference for Office developers, or the first one focused on Office development, is it worth your while to attend? I'd say cautiously yes, depending on whether you really are interested in developing software that rides on top of Office. Certainly, this represents a good market. Microsoft Office is on gazillions of desktops, and it's the corporate standard in many, many places. So if you develop an Office add-in that's of interest to corporate America, you've got a pre-build market (just as you do if you develop an interesting piece of Windows software). Vertical markets, too, are good places to sell Office-based software; customizing the combination of Access, Excel, and SharePoint for industry-specific workflow is a ripe field.

But you do want to exercise a bit of caution in putting too many bets on this particular horse. Remember, Office is one huge mass of unmanaged code, and is thus somewhat at odds with Microsoft's long-term .NET strategy. Sure, there are shims and glue pieces galore to integrate .NET development with an Office base, but when you come right down to it, there's some friction there. Were I to invest a lot of time in an Office-based solution, I'd be thinking about how to transition it to something else four or five years down the road. Or at least how to rewrite it for a new, more .NET-integrated Office.

And that brings up the last reason why this conference might be a good place for forward-looking developers to visit. Given that the conference content will probably come largely from the horse's mouth, it may be the first time we're able to learn anything about the shape of Office 12, which so far is quite a secret. Even if there's no official content on the subject, a few beers in the right place after hours might work wonders. Just a thought....

About the Author

Mike Gunderloy has been developing software for a quarter-century now, and writing about it for nearly as long. He walked away from a .NET development career in 2006 and has been a happy Rails user ever since. Mike blogs at A Fresh Cup.

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