Microsoft opens Office 365 to programmers

At TechEd Europe, Microsoft announced updates to Office 365, Azure and Intune

Extending Office 365 functionality to third-party developers, Microsoft has exposed a set of application programming interfaces (APIs) so other companies can add features and capabilities to the online productivity service.

The company announced the new functionality at the TechEd Europe conference, held this week in Barcelona.

The APIs are a way for third-party programs to access the information and capabilities of the online office suite, including those for user mail, files, calendar and contacts.

Microsoft is "clearly trying to keep Office front and center in the new world of mobile devices," wrote Al Hilwa, program director for software development research at IDC. "The approach of moving to APIs is the right strategy for providing extensibility to services like Office 365 in the era of cloud. I would expect that they will keep building on these APIs over time, but they are handling the most important areas in this wave, which relate to email integration."

Microsoft estimated that 70 percent of Fortune 500 companies are using Office 365 in some form. The company holds about 450 petabytes of information from all of the service's users.

The APIs could be used in a wide variety of ways, Microsoft said. For example, an app for making travel reservations could automatically place the user's itinerary in his or her calendar. A CRM (customer relationship management) app could link its sales information directly to the salesperson's email or files. The APIs are exposed through a REST (Representational State Transfer) protocol.

One early user of the APIs will be cloud service broker IFTTT (If This, Then That), which is used to connect separate cloud services into workflows. Already, the service connects 130 services for its users and plans to hook in Office 365 functionality in the coming weeks.

Over time, Microsoft will offer additional APIs, including those for updating tasks and Yammer activity.

To help developers get started, Microsoft Open Technologies, a subsidiary of Microsoft, has released new Visual Studio software development kits (SDKs) for both Android and the Apple iOS devices. The company has also posted online training for the APIs.

In addition to exposing the APIs, Microsoft has made room on the Office 365 app launcher for new third-party tools. That will allow new third-party apps to appear alongside Microsoft tools, such as Outlook, Yammer or OneDrive. Microsoft has already started working with third parties, including project management service SmartSheet, and authentication service provider DocuSign, to bring their applications to the launcher.

Microsoft has already made some headway in getting developers to add functions to its products and services. Between Office 365 and SharePoint, more than 3.4 million developers have found ways to extend Microsoft software, according to the company. PayPal, for instance, has developed software that allows its users to issue invoices from within Excel. Software provider Poll Everywhere developed a way to incorporate audience feedback directly into PowerPoint presentations.

As an online service, Office 365 acts as both an online extension to the on-premise version of Microsoft Office and a full-fledged collaboration and productivity suite, including email, calendaring, file storage, document sharing and other features.

At TechEd Europe, Microsoft made a number of other announcements around its Azure cloud service and its mobile device management offerings.

For Azure, the company previewed a service, called Azure Batch, that allows customers to easily schedule jobs that may involve thousands of compute nodes. Another service, called Azure Automation, was designed to automate many administrative tasks needed to run complex jobs in Azure that are now done by hand. The company has also stood up an anti-malware service to protect virtual machines from wrongdoing. An update to the Azure Active Directory will allow organizations to make their on-premise applications available to external users.

Microsoft has also updated Intune, a service to help small businesses manage computers and mobile devices. It can now control how users deploy Office 365 on their own devices, as well as control mobile Office apps that the organizations construct themselves. In the first quarter of 2015, Office 365 will also come with some mobile device management (MDM) capabilities, allowing administrators, for example, to wipe corporate data from an employee device.

Joab Jackson covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Joab on Twitter at @Joab_Jackson. Joab's e-mail address is Joab_Jackson@idg.com

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