In my previous column "Ripple Has Become a Wave" (http://www.windowsitpro.com/SQLServer/Article/ArticleID/49304/49304.html), I invited readers to email me reasons why people might still be using COM in the business logic behind their Web sites. I received only one email. In it, the reader said that one reason might be that, "MS never updated the Office COM interface to .NET, requiring you to completely re-engineer your methods for providing Excel based reports to users or just use Interop." The reader went on to mention that "you have plenty of options to get around this limitation." I got the impression that the reader might not have a solid understanding of what Microsoft had and hadn't done regarding Office and its interaction with .NET.

I last mentioned the Visual Studio Tools for the Microsoft Office System (VSTO) in my August 2005 column "The Shifting Sands of Technology" (http://www.windowsitpro.com/SQLServer/Article/ArticleID/47478/47478.html). In case you're unfamiliar with VSTO, it's the replacement for COM interop. With VSTO 2005, you do anything that you can do with interop. And with a custom task pane, VSTO's capabilities go a long way beyond interop's capabilities. I was recently involved in a project for a small company in which we added custom research capability to Microsoft Word. Because we followed the Microsoft standards for publishing the actual search interfaces, the custom search was available not only from our own pane in Word but also from the research pane in any Microsoft Office product and in Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) once you installed the search interfaces.

Microsoft Office 2007 (previously code-named Office 12), which Microsoft plans to ship by the end of this year, will bring enhancements to VSTO. In addition, developers will be better able to use the Windows .NET Framework to manipulate Office 2007 products. Some of the changes coming to products such as Microsoft Outlook are just amazing. You can read about Outlook's design changes and changes in programming capabilities in Sue Mosher's "A New Look for Outlook 12" (http://www.windowsitpro.com/Windows/Article/ArticleID/48710/48710.html). In addition, you can view slides that specifically address the new programmatic features in Outlook at http://www.cookcomputing.com/blog/archives/000489.html.

VSTO currently has two disadvantages, which Microsoft will hopefully eliminate or at least minimize in Office 2007. The first disadvantage is that VSTO capabilities in Outlook 2003 are limited compared with its capabilities in Word 2003 and Microsoft Excel 2003. The second limitation is that clients need to have Office Professional Edition 2003 installed for VSTO to operate. VSTO isn't available to clients using Office Standard Edition 2003.

In "The Shifting Sands of Technology," I discussed how VSTO impacts the development of Windows Forms applications, but I didn't discuss the impact that Office 2003 is having on Web applications. Although I briefly touched on this topic in my April 2004 column "SharePoint Portal Server 2003 and InfoPath--A Dynamic Duo" (http://www.windowsitpro.com/Windows/Article/ArticleID/42572/42572.html), that column mainly focused on Microsoft Office InfoPath 2003. Thus, I want to spend more time discussing SharePoint.

SharePoint lets you upload, version, and manage Office documents and other project documents straight out of the box. SharePoint, which is the focus this month's issue of Windows IT Pro magazine (http://www.windowsitpro.com/Windows/Issues/IssueID/815/Index.html), can be confusing in that there are actually two SharePoint products: Microsoft Windows SharePoint Services and Microsoft Office SharePoint Portal Server 2003. The differences between the products lie in which Microsoft product team owns the product and what each product costs and does.

In short, SharePoint Portal Server is a product from the Microsoft Office team and requires separate licensing associated with Office. Many companies that use SharePoint Portal Server get their licensing through their enterprise Office licensing. Not surprisingly, the SharePoint Portal Server home page is on the Office site at http://office.microsoft.com/sharepoint.

SharePoint Portal Server builds on Windows SharePoint Services, which most people consider the core SharePoint product. Essentially, Windows SharePoint Services creates independent project sites and SharePoint Portal Server ties these sites together under a common portal. SharePoint Portal Server also provides other features, which you can read about at http://support.microsoft.com/default.aspx?scid=kb;EN-US;830320.

Windows SharePoint Services is a component that's part of and included with all editions of Windows Server 2003. Thus, you'll find the Windows SharePoint Services home page on the Windows Server site at http://www.microsoft.com/windowsserver2003/technologies/sharepoint/default.mspx. Windows SharePoint Services lets you create project-based Web sites and is used in other Microsoft products. A good developer-focused example is Team Foundation Server (TFS). The TFS integration with Windows SharePoint Services is what sets up your project site so that you can combine your source code repository with a repository for project-related documentation.

Windows SharePoint Services' versatility at providing a standard Web interface for project teams has made it synonymous with collaboration. The Microsoft Small Business Server ships with Windows SharePoint Services already enabled so that small businesses can easily share internal documentation. Windows SharePoint Services is an "intranet in a box" for companies that are looking for a low-cost internal tool to manage their shared documents.

Microsoft recognizes that Windows SharePoint Services is an important tool in its collaboration platform and a direct competitor to existing collaboration tools, such as Lotus Notes/Lotus Domino. Perhaps that's why Microsoft recently purchased Groove Networks, a leading provider of workgroup collaboration software. Microsoft will be working to better integrate Windows SharePoint Services with tools such as Microsoft FrontPage and InfoPath. These improvements will make Windows SharePoint Services a more powerful platform by the end of this year. Working with VSTO, Windows SharePoint Services, and other Office system tools to develop collaboration, messaging, and other information-management solutions might even help your company net part of a $148 billion market, according to Microsoft Partner Capacity Research (https://partner.microsoft.com/global/competency/iwsolutions). For more information about Windows SharePoint Services as a part of a collaborative environment, check out TechNet's collaboration page at http://www.microsoft.com/technet/interopmigration/collaboration/default.mspx.