Access 12 and Developers

Let me start by writing about two customer visits I made early in the development of Access 12 that proved to be a good representation of some of our developer customers. 


The first, a large enterprise organization in the health industry arranged a full day where 10 business users (part-time developers) presented to Microsoft on their applications and talked about how they use Access. All the applications had similar code libraries for common operations. These code libraries included export to PDF, date picker, rich text control, filtering, alternate row color, handling the not in list event, left hand navigation for opening and closing objects, and single document interfaces. Many folks dynamically resized sub forms to fill the available space in the window. I saw multiple instances of split views where users wanted to have a list of data, when a record is selected in datasheet a form showed the details. Nearly all of the applications involved a custom version of the switchboard manager.  


This organization also had a SharePoint pilot team present. The organization had 75+ external partner sites focused SharePoint sites in less than 3 months. The people using the sites were thrilled with the way they were able to collaborate with external partners. However, not everyone could create new sites because of limited IT support resources, and the Access developers expressed frustration with the IT department about the restrictions placed on creating new sites. They key point was the Access developer community in the organization was clamoring for more ways to build rich and reach Access applications with SharePoint as the center point. The idea of Access working offline with SharePoint data was salient…  


I made another visit to a large insurance company. They had a group of 6 developers that did nothing but write Access applications. They had developed nearly the same code library of functions as the health organization. Access was the perfect tool for their group to build small workgroup applications that could be delivered in 2 weeks for under $30,000. The people in the group were heros in their organization because of how quickly they could deliver highly functional business applications.

The reason I highlight these scenarios is to illustrate how developers have been forced to write a significant amount of code to work around the things that customers require with fairly common data activities. One of the key parts of the Access vision is making it possible to build more sophisticated and powerful applications faster with far less code. 


As Erik has stated in his blog, there are three things we are trying to do in this release:

  1. Dramatically expand the number of people who are successful using Access by making it much easier to build databases from scratch and by including a range ready to go solutions in the box that can be used as they are or modified as required.
  2. Make existing Access developers more efficient by improving the design tools without losing any of the power that Access provides today.
  3. Enable a whole new class of collaborative database applications around Windows SharePoint Services. 

The work to expose WSS lists as web services and then consume those web services in Access 2003 was the first step in a long term plan to make Access a great rich client for WSS data. In this version we have devoted a significant amount of development resources to fill gaps in the scenarios. Access 12 builds on the SharePoint story with improved support for offline data, data types (multi-choice lookups and value lists, attachments), SharePoint site manager, upsize to SharePoint, templates for SharePoint list types, exposing links to forms and reports inside SharePoint, and exposing workflow verbs inside Access. SharePoint is a strategic investment for Microsoft, and Access is vital part of the story for working with SharePoint data. We think SharePoint provides developers a great opportunity to build new types of applications that expose rich and thin views on the data where the data is available offline for disconnected users. 


Office Online becomes a very interesting option for the small business developer as they will have the ability to build applications hosted on Office Online for free. The service is supported by advertising revenue. The SharePoint strategy will continue to expand over time. 


The ribbon provides a great developer opportunity to build an application that looks modern and fresh. Overall, the response about the ribbon has been really positive. It is only a matter of time before people will be asking for ribbon applications. Already there are third parties building ribbon-like code libraries so that VS developers can make their apps look like Office 12. Our team wants to work with people in this forum to flush out requirements and make tweaks to give you the functionality you need to build fresh, new types of applications.  


Templates are also a huge part of the Access strategy. Last year we had well over a million downloads of Access templates! The team is working very hard to build 25-30 great templates that make it easy for business users to start tracking information. The product was designed with the idea that users would easily add a couple fields and create reports that enabling them to capture the information they need to make clearer business decisions. The pipe to Office online will allow Microsoft to continue to build new templates that invigorate the franchise and help users track the information they need.

It has been a while since Access has made significant investments in end user features. The end user features will broaden the base of Access development by allow many, more users to start building new applications. Some of those end users will grow into power users and then developers--others will find Access developers to help them accomplish what they have in mind. Our expectation is that there will be many more Access developers in 5 years simply by the fact that more and more people are using the product to track their business information.


Microsoft will spend more energy and money marketing Access 12 than previous releases. The end user work resonates with the Office marketing message around Office 12. The new user experience makes communicating the business value a much easier. This release of Access makes great strides in bring Access into the Office marketing message. 


I hesitate to talk too much about Access 14 as we haven't even shipped a public beta of Access 12. Erik’s post on Access Commitment to Developers outlines three important things for developers moving forward:

  • Better experience and more power in Access—we love RAD!

  • Better experience working with servers.

  • Easier to extend Access apps with Visual Studio.

In summary, there loads of codeless features will allow developers to spend more time modeling business process while writing less code on their path to building modern looking applications. SharePoint will open up a new wave of applicaitons that can be built using Access and the SharePoint Designer.


In the mean time--happy developing!