How Microsoft is opening Office's brains to apps to make productivity even smarter

Everyone was up in arms when Google rejiggered its privacy policies to allow its various services to talk to each other, but now Microsoft's taking a page from the same playbook to bring more intelligence to its various Office products--and allow third-party developers to tap into your data to create seamless experiences inside of Office products.

"We are moving from Office for us, to Office with others," CEO Satya Nadella declared during Microsoft's Build keynote on Wednesday.

Now, third-party plugins are nothing new to Office--witness the (somewhat neglected and barren) Office app store. But Microsoft's rolling out a new unified API that allows third-party apps to pull data from all the various Microsoft services you use, from Calendar to messages. That should make it much easier for the company to create seamless, helpful experiences for end users.

Microsoft showed off some examples onstage. LinkedIn and Salesforce apps automatically displayed information about the respective people and companies being conversed with in Outlook, scraping names from a message's to and from lines, then augmenting it with data pulled from the company's own servers. An Uber app integrates with your Calendar, and then automatically sends you a reminder on your phone to schedule a pickup shortly before the meeting starts--with the destination already plugged in from your data.

Finally, a plugin was shown that makes it easy to add high-quality pictures to your Office products. The integration should go live in Microsoft's Sway shortly, and these intelligent app integrations should hit the other Office apps--Word, PowerPoint, etc.--in the coming months.

The new API and a behind-the-scenes Office Graph will allow developers to dive into your far-fling Microsoft data, from Calendar entries to OneDrive files, and also allow apps to share data back to those Microsoft services.

It sounds kind of scary on the surface, but Nadella drove home that this is all permission driven. Apps won't be able to see anything you don't want them to see. And hey, this is very similar to what Google already does with Google Now--witness the 70 new app integrations announced for that service this very morning.

If it works as advertised, this new third-party extensibility could be a powerful capability for Microsoft indeed--and one far more powerful than the ho-hum Office Web Apps available thus far.

Nadella also announced a new Web SDK for Skype, which will allow developers to embed Skype messages and video chat into their apps. The sharing goes both ways, it seems.

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