One of the many hidden gems in the Microsoft business intelligence (BI) world is the new Apps for Office framework. If you want a data visualization that Microsoft tools don't currently offer out-of-the-box, Office Web Apps may be a viable option for you. This framework immediately opens up a whole new world of data visualization possibilities in Excel or SharePoint with popular open source JavaScript libraries like the d3.js or InfoVis toolkit. 

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Back in October 2012, I built my own treemap after a passionate appeal to Excel's program management team was denied. Sometimes you just need to keep on moving forward and fill the voids yourself. Other BI vendors are doing the exact same thing right now—showcasing APIs that serve as wrappers around d3.js to extend base data visualization offerings.

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The Apps for Office framework is a web standards-based solution that integrates with both Office and SharePoint 2013. Apps for Office are developed in HTML5, XML, CSS, JavaScript, and REST APIs. They are deployed to a SharePoint Server, Office 365, or to the general public via the Office Store for usage in Excel. At a fundamental level, an Office App is like an iframe web element that is hosted inside an Office client application. An Office App has APIs to read cell values, write cell values, and interact with the Excel client application.

Apps for Office run inside Excel desktop clients and within Office 365 Excel documents online.  Theoretically, these web-friendly, modern Excel add-ins should work with most mobile web browsers including Windows, iPad, iPod, and Androids devices. I tested my Excel treemap from Office 365 with an iPad and indeed, it worked for me. However, I have heard reports that the new native Office Mobile Apps do not support the Apps of Office framework at this time due to limitations in the way Apple allows external communications. 

App for Office diagram

Developing Apps for Office might be a bit of a stretch for most BI talent—it requires web application programming skills, HTML5, and deeper JavaScript experience. Since HTML5 is the number one, most in-demand, hot technical skill right now, adding it to your resume should be a worthy investment of your time.

When I created my Office App treemap, I got it up and running in a few hours with a web browser by tweaking open source JavaScript snippets from the InfoVis Toolkit reference libraries—it was not at all a painful ramp up experience. Programming my Office Apps treemap to dynamically read an Excel range with the API, now that was a bit more challenging!    

If you want to get started building an Office App data visualization, check out the Office Developer tutorial. You'll need to install the Office 365 Development Tools app on your Office 365 site. You can code Office Apps directly within a web browser, no Visual Studio installation is necessary. You might need a low cost Office 365 Developer account and Office 2013 Professional Plus to test your visualization masterpiece. If you have an MSDN subscription, an Office 365 Developer account should already be included in your subscription.  

What kind of app do you want to build

If you aren’t quite ready to take the Office App developer programming plunge, you can still enjoy publicly available data visualizations in the Office Store. On the Excel 2013 INSERT menu, choose Store, perform a search for data visualization, and select an app to install. A few of the more popular apps include:

  • Waterfall
  • Histogram
  • People Graph
  • Streamgraph
  • Geographic Heatmap
  • Gauge
  • Radial Chart
  • Bubbles
  • Smart Charts
  • XLMiner Data Visualization

Apps for Office Store

New applications get added to the Office Store fairly often, so it's worth checking out monthly. If you get easily distracted, be prepared to spend a few hours or more exploring and playing with all the really cool Excel Office Apps that are available.

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