Another great advance in the Winter 08 release of Office Live Small Business is the new Solution Packaging technology. This service allows you to take components off of your public-facing web site & entire business applications, package them together, creating a comprehensive solution to a Small Business problem. See this article in our dev guide for a great overview of the packager.
As an example, you might create a Business Application for a restaurant to manage a rotating menu. The Business Application will be pretty simple, probably just a SharePoint list of names, prices, descriptions, etc. Then let us say that you have pages on your public-facing web site where you have used the List Publisher to publish the menu. By doing this, the changes that the chef makes to the list on the business app can be dynamically published up to the daily rotating menu on your public web site.
This is great, but how do you wrap this up and allow your friend who also has a restaurant site reuse what you built? Before the new version of Office Live, you would be able to package up the Business App as an .stp file and send it to your friend. That would only recreate the Bizapp. But the public-facing pages and the List Publisher module would all need to be created from scratch.
Not anymore... now you can package up both the Business Applications and components of your web site into an Office Live Package (.olp) file. From a granularity perspective, you can choose any Business App to include, optionally including the data in the lists as seed data. For the Web Site, you can package web pages, images, documents, and (also new in the Winter release) page templates you have created. Everything is stitched up together into a single .olp file.
So, you send the restaurant .olp file to your friend. She deploys the solution on her subscription. Office Live will read the contents of the file, putting all of the individual components into the correct places. We will even patch up connections made through the List Publisher and Form Designer modules between a public web page and the newly created restaurant business app. Note... we do require your friend to make one final step of visiting the pages and confirming the module settings before we start publishing data for the restaurant menu... this is to prevent people from accidentally publishing business-sensitive data.
The really big innovation here is the packaging up of your public site, something you could not previously do with anything made on your Office Live site using our Web Site Designer. Now, with the packager, you can package those pages, templates, images etc. and share them to your hearts content!
Another scenario we are very excited about is supporting the sharing of web page templates. You now have the ability, in advanced mode, of creating web page templates. Maybe you create a great web site for a real estate office. You may not want to share your entire site, but maybe you create templates for a few of the pages such as publishing the home listings. Now you can package that template up in an .olp file and share it to anyone else on Office Live Small Business.
Before you ask, let me get out in front of the question and say NO, we do not enforce any sort of intellectual property rights on the .olp files you create. So, if you are thinking of building a business around these solutions, you do have to think about the fact that someone else can package up what you give them and give it away for free. Our goal was to get this out ASAP, and this is one of the features that didn't make the cut. Also, we wanted these solutions to be as viral as possible, so everyone can cross-pollinate ideas in a more (gasp) open source kind of way. As we get feedback on the packager, we hope to also learn more about the IP scenarios so we can work them into a future release.
Versioning is another thing we did not tackle in this release. If pages already exist on your web site, the deployment of a package with files of the same name will fail. There is an "overwrite" checkbox to make this work though. Also, if you package a new version of a business application, and it already exists, we will deploy a second copy of it side-by-side. There really is no good way to do a delta update to a business application yet, so that's what we went with. Again, this is another area we hope to get more feedback and scenarios on.
I think the most exciting thing about the new packager is that we don't really know how it might be used. I can imagine many things, but ultimately it's up to the creativity of our developer audience to take advantage and help guide us in the right direction for the next round of improvements.