Office pitched as a development platform

Reinforcing its positioning of Office as not just an applications suite, but a development platform, Microsoft on Wednesday kicked off its first Office System Developer Conference.

The event at Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Washington, underlines the software maker's efforts to get developers to expand on Office. Microsoft has offered several tools to do so, including Visual Studio Tools for Office, an update to which will be demonstrated Friday in a keynote by Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates.

By building on top of Office, businesses can turn familiar Office applications such as Outlook and Excel into a front end for ERP (enterprise resource planning) and CRM (customer relationship management) applications, Microsoft has said.

Broader usage of Office benefits Microsoft as customers become more dependent on the applications suite. Also, the most advanced integration features are available only in Office 2003, the most recent Office version, which means customers will have to upgrade to link Office with their back-end applications.

Microsoft is setting an example through "Project Elixir," an effort to let its about 8,000 sales people access data in a Siebel Systems CRM system through Outlook. Elixir is being rolled out to U.S. enterprise field sales employees now, with others set to follow in the coming months, a Microsoft spokeswoman said.

Later this year, Microsoft plans to share some of the work it has done on Elixir with customers. How exactly the company will do that is still being worked out, the spokeswoman said.

Microsoft doesn't have to go it alone. Inc. is wooing Office developers with a developer program to link the online CRM service with Office applications. was already tight with Office; last year it delivered a plug-in that lets users import CRM data into Word, Excel and Outlook.

The new "sforce Developer Program for the Microsoft Office System" includes a toolkit currently in beta to make it easy for developers to access the service from within Office and applications built on top of Office, said in a statement.

Additionally, offers message boards for developers building on Office and has expanded its On-Demand Marketplace with a new Office category for third-party software makers to showcase their products, the company said.

The Microsoft Office System Developer Conference has attracted over 800 attendees from more than 40 countries, according to Microsoft. The event is the start of a string of events in the coming weeks where Microsoft speakers will address developers. Next week is VSLive and Windows Anywhere, followed by the RSA Conference a week later. All three events are in San Francisco.

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