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Microsoft Outlines Office 365 Deployment and Admin Improvements

Office 365 wasn't the main attraction at last week's annual Build Conference in San Francisco but Microsoft gave its popular productivity platform and cloud service reasonable airtime showcasing new capabilities that IT pros and developers alike should welcome

During Thursday's general session, Qi Lu, executive vice president of Microsoft's Applications and Services Group outlined a number of new capabilities for Office 365, which he said is now used by 60 million commercial subscribers with an installed base of 340 million mobile downloads.

As recapped by senior product manager Jeremy Chapman in Microsoft's Office blog Friday, Lu emphasized three key areas of improvement specifically targeted at IT pros and developers:

  • Added intelligence to the Microsoft Graph, the unified API for Office 365 released back in November that gives developers the ability to incorporate the intelligence of Microsoft services such as Azure Active Directory, OneDrive for Business, Outlook and SharePoint into their own apps.
  • Improved capability for deploying extensible add-ins to Office 365, allowing centralized deployment and programmatic development of specific ribbons and buttons
  • New extensibility for Skype and Office 365 Groups.

The Microsoft Graph's added intelligence aims to let developers build "even smarter apps -- powered by data and insights from Office 365," wrote Microsoft Office 365 Corporate VP Kirk Koenigsbauer, in a separate post. "Developers can now use the Microsoft Graph to access a user's out-of-office status and recent email attachments."

During the Build keynote session, Yina Arenas,  Microsoft's senior program manager lead, demonstrated how that intelligence allows DocuSign, the popular provider of electronic signatures, to use the out-of-office status to automatically pass on a request to an alternate contact who is available and authorized to approve or e-sign a document. "DocuSign is leveraging all of the data and intelligence behind the Microsoft Graph to bring and create more contextual applications for their users," she explained.

The improved capability for deploying extensible add-ins to Office 365 for Windows, Web and iOS for iPad, now includes Office 2016 for Mac to the mix of supported platforms, Lu announced, noting the goal is to ultimately support all key platforms. The support for extensible add-ins allows developers to implement popular Web technologies such as CSS, HTML5, JavaScript and other modern Web frameworks.

 "You can add a simple XML manifest that describes how your applications will integrate into Office and then you can use a collection of JavaScript APIs to interact with the Office apps, for example Word, PowerPoint, Excel and Outlook," Lu explained. 

Lu also announced that developers can now make their own solutions a native part of Office on every platform using Office 365's modern app distribution model. The model lets users install add-ins themselves from the Office App Store. Office 365 administrators can "deploy add-ins to the users or groups within their organizations by a simple button click." The Office 365 Graph now supports Webhooks, Lu announced, which allows applications to respond to changes in data in real time.

The new extensibility for Skype and Office 365 Groups, now lets developers integrate their services into conversations within Office using Outlook and Skype, Lu said. "These two conversation canvases will provide new and powerful ways for your services to engage with your users," he said.

Chapman noted that while these updates apply primarily to developers, the new centralized deployment typically falls into the domain of the Office 365 administrator, who'll likely want to customize the desktop environment with add-ins, personalization and security policies, without expecting users to load the add-ins or configure Office.

"The Office add-in model for COM add-ins has been around for a long time, and developers of those add-ins tend to deliver those as .EXE or .MSI installation files," Chapman noted. "This is often done in order to use software distribution systems -- like Microsoft Intune or System Center Configuration Manager -- to deploy add-ins as part of a customized Office environment."

Consequently, this brings some challenges with the COM add-in deployment model that Chapman noted Microsoft has solved with the new model:

  • Deployment is usually targeted at a device, not a user.
  • Getting add-in experiences to users often requires software distribution systems, where devices need to be enrolled into the management system.
  • Updating and managing add-ins can be challenging when changes are needed.

"The new Office add-in model itself solves the update problem by moving client-side operations either to the cloud or a privately hosted service," Chapman noted. "When updates are needed, the updates can be done centrally against the service that powers the add-in or via the Office 365 admin portal. The new centralized deployment model with Office add-ins also solves for the other two challenges, by enabling admins to target deployment to specific users or groups and eliminating the need for software distribution systems to deploy these new add-ins. You can now upload add-in files and distribute them to your users from the Office 365 admin portal. "

This could also be appealing in organizations where employees use their personal devices who don't want to connect to device management systems, he added. Instead, a small .XML file, which Office apps can easily discover and load when Word, Excel or PowerPoint launches, is installed, he said.

"These updates make it easier for both IT admins and developers to ensure users benefit from Office add-in experiences."


Posted by Jeffrey Schwartz on 04/04/2016 at 5:12 PM


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