If you’ve ever tried to write Add-ins for Microsoft Office, you know that it can be a pretty intimidating task. Sure the splash screens might look the same, but underneath, Office is a whole collection of different versions of different products, and this becomes really apparent when you look under the hood at the various API interfaces.
There have been several attempts by Microsoft to add consistency to the way that solutions are developed on the office platform (with Visual Studio Tools for Office being the latest, and probably best entry), but when it comes down to it, to deploy anything really useful, you have to resort to learning 4 different versions of 5 different object models.
Or do you? As you fumble your way through looking for sample code to make your life easier, there’s a high probability that you’ll end up on the Add-in Express site. When I first came across these guys, I checked out their claim that their product, Add-in Express, allows you to “Make office programming fast, comfortable and trouble-free”. I snorted.
“C’mon. Nothing can do that…” I then hit the back button and clicked some link to Experts-Exchange and auto-scrolled all the way to the bottom. You can’t believe everything you read on the Internet, right?
Much later, Dean found another positive review for the Add-In Express guys on StackOverflow, and as we were about to begin a new iteration of our Office add-ins, he suggested that we should give them a try. I spoke to Andrei about getting a demonstration license, and installed the toolkit to build the next version of our Outlook Add-in. Within 2 days, I was converted. Add-in Express is a remarkable piece of software.
Using Add-in Express is weird, but then, writing Office Add-ins is weird, so I guess that makes sense. Rather than have a traditional WYSIWYG designer, there is a canvas that allows you to add big icon-like controls, and then you set those controls’ properties through various properties dialogs. You handle events, write module level code, add references and any control you like.
When you’ve configured these things to your liking, you simply register the add-in from the build menu, and then start your target office application. Your add-in is configured for you. If you want to debug it, you just attach to the process, and step through your code. It has dramatically improved the reliability, speed and most importantly development time for our MS Office integration.
Add-in Express also adds a setup project to your solution, and builds you the MSI as you go. When you want to deploy your add-In, you simply run the MSI on the target machine.
Support from the Add-in Express guys via their forum was prompt and very helpful. It became patently clear to me that these guys have already fallen into, and successfully gotten out of, all of the traps, potholes and tricks that are awaiting you in the mysterious world of Office Development. If you are planning on doing some serious Office Integration, this kind of knowledge is invaluable. Highly recommended.