Creating an Outlook plugin with Add-In Express

Addinexpress

I’ve always written Outlook plugins from the ground up in C++, since I’m very wary of dependencies on frameworks like .Net and other components that can turn deployment and debugging into a nightmare. I recently ran across the Add-In Express suite of tools for building Office plugins, and it offers enough to change my mind.

I paid $349 for the standard version, and the first pleasant surprise is that there’s no royalties for your end-users. Another big plus is that you can upgrade to a premium version that includes full source code for just $949. This is very important if you’re creating a commercial product, it means if they go out of business you can still keep tweaking the code to deal with OS upgrades or minor bugs. There’s also various discounts available for things like blog reviews, though I didn’t take advantage of that. [Update- After posting Andrei from ADX was kind enough to give me a free upgrade to the Premium edition]

The purchase and download was very painless, and it installed itself as part of Visual Studio, offering new project templates for the various Office plugin types. The license is limited to 3 development machines, so I will have to see how that works with my frequent reinstalls of my Parallels VM. I chose ADX COM Add-In from the extensibility section of the project templates,  and then went through a couple of wizard screens choosing which language and applications I wanted to use. I went for C# (new to me, but since I needed a heavily UI-based plugin C++ was just getting too painful) and Outlook.

You choose to have an installer automatically generated when you create your project, and this is an incredible time-saver. I’ve lost countless hours fiddling with the guts of WIX installer, so this alone could be worth the price. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get it working, and it looked like it was related to my use of UAC on Vista. I discovered a workaround I could use during development though, the ‘Register ADX’ context menu item on the project worked like a charm. It looks like UAC may be an ongoing problem for Vista deployment, but their forums are extremely active with both developers and support staff, so I feel confident I can get help on issues as they come up, and I’ll be on a well-trodden path unlike my home-brew efforts.

Their claim is that they will handle all the horrible add-in plumbing and let you focus on writing your application code, and so far they live up to that promise. I was able to get a simple window added to Outlook within a day, a lot faster than my previous plug-ins I wrote from scratch. There were plenty of head-scratching moments as I read through the documentation, but nothing that I couldn’t figure out with some experimentation and looking through the forums.

All-in-all, a big thumbs up for Add-In Express. I’ll have a more detailed review once I’ve really used it in anger, but I’m optimistic I’ve found a real time-saver.

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