Next Edition of Office 97 Opens Door for Developers
By Peter Coffee
January 27, 1997 2:09 PM EST
PC Week

As the dust begins to settle from Microsoft Corp.'s release of its updated Office 97 desktop suite, corporate developers of custom applications will find that their opportunities are just beginning.

PC Week Labs tested Microsoft's Office 97, Developer Edition, which is slated to ship in March for $799 and commonly referred to as ODE, and found its new version of the VBA (Visual Basic for Applications) programming language impressively unified and powerful. ODE's well-conceived aids for deploying secure and efficient applications will increase developers' interest in using Microsoft's Office (especially its Access database management module) as their platform.

Despite the product's considerable hardware demands and the persisting limitations of the BASIC language, ODE's strengths earn it the distinction of being a PC Week Labs Analyst's Choice.

Objects aplenty

Office 97's rich collection of prebuilt objects and usability aids can be controlled using the new VBA 5.0 in the full-strength Office applications (Word, Excel, Access and PowerPoint). VBA code in these applications also can control Office's new Outlook personal information manager, which also supports the VBScript subset internally.

The VBA environment's automated parameter prompting, integrated debugging and object-based architecture have more in common with a LISP machine than with the ancestral QuickBASIC. We wish that Microsoft had started with a language that had richer data structures, parsing tools and flow control options--such as those provided by REXX, for example--but VBA 5.0 exceeds PC Week Labs' expectations.

VBA 5.0 also gives a preview of the welcome enhancements promised in other forthcoming editions of Visual Basic 5.0, including views of relationships within a complex project through the new Project Explorer. This feature uses the familiar tree control to unify the documents, forms and modules of a custom application and to make these components easy to locate and edit.

Facilities like these become essential as a Word document, for example, becomes a collection of ActiveX controls tied together with custom code. (Viewing of code can be blocked by password protection and RSA encryption.)

The complexity of such projects is brought under control, to some extent, with convenient features such as drag-and-drop creation of control templates. A combination of several controls can be selected as a group, dragged to the control palette and named as a group, which can then be placed on other forms in another single drag-and-drop operation.

But this feature is not as powerful as it might be. Such a template appears only in the toolbox of the Office application (such as Word) in which it was created. It can be shared with other applications by exporting a toolbox page and importing that page into another application, such as Excel, but we would welcome a less cumbersome approach.

Deploying data-driven tools

Developers of database front-end applications will find team development easier with version control hooks in the new release of Microsoft's Access. These now support Microsoft's Visual SourceSafe, and third-party tools will no doubt follow.

Access 97's development tools automatically minimize application overhead, for example, by using a simple hyperlink rather than more cumbersome VBA code for navigation tasks associated with a command button. New partial replication options reduce the network overhead of distributed database designs.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Office 97, Developer Edition

The forthcoming Developer Edition of Microsoft's Office 97 unifies the programmable capabilities of the suite's applications under a common and surprisingly strong implementation of the BASIC language, Visual Basic for Applications 5.0. Database application development is especially aided by version control hooks and streamlined deployment options.

    USABILITY         A
    CAPABILITY        A

+ Highly automated BASIC programming tools; programmable access to animated Office Assistant and other usability aids; useful collection of ActiveX controls; many facilities for source code management and protection.

- Additional steps required to share customized controls across Office applications; Visual Basic for Applications remains a weak procedures language compared with alternatives such as REXX.

Microsoft Corp., Redmond, Wash. (800) 621-7930

Scoring methodology:

The Developer Edition will let programmers control Office Assistant.

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