Understand Microsoft’s grand vision for building the next generation of apps

In recent years, Microsoft has introduced a plethora of new tools and technologies aimed at helping developers — including those within Microsoft — build “the next generation of apps.” Microsoft has something for every app builder, from “common level” non-professional developers to savvy, experienced developers. And executives believe these types of apps, many of them, are exactly what customers need right now, especially in this era of hybrid work. But is there an overall strategy that holds everything together?

We got a glimpse of what Microsoft was trying to do with this Microsoft marketing slide from a few years ago:

Credit: Microsoft

And here’s the newer, Microsoft cloud-centric version:

collaborativeapps2022.png

Credit: Microsoft

Microsoft has described a concept called “collaborative apps” in many ways. Collaborative apps, when Microsoft executives first used the term, seemed to be apps developed for use in teams and acquired from the Teams app store.

Now Microsoft managers use “collaborative apps” much more comprehensively: they can be apps in Teams or Teams components in your apps. But there is more. With Microsoft’s intent to more closely tie its Microsoft 365 and Dynamics 365 franchises together, “collaborative apps” also applies to Dynamics 365. Collaborative apps can be apps within Dynamics or Dynamics components within your apps.

How should developers and users understand this evolving vision of collaborative apps? Ahead of the kickoff of the first annual Microsoft Power Platform conference on September 20th, I had the opportunity to speak with Jeff Teper, incoming President of Collaborative Apps and Platforms, and Charles Lamanna, Corporate Vice President of Business Apps and Platform.

At today’s conference, Teper’s keynote is entitled “Building Collaborative Apps with Microsoft 365 + Power Platform”. Coinciding with the event’s kick-off, Microsoft announced a new Power-Up Skills program designed to help individuals break into low-code through a three-month guided curriculum. Cards (based on the Adaptive Card Framework) for Power Apps; and co-authoring within Power Apps to edit apps concurrently in real time with an Office-like experience. The new maps (coming to public preview soon) and the co-authoring feature (coming to public preview next month) are additional pieces of the collaborative apps puzzle.

Collaborative Apps: The Elevator Pitch

At its simplest, a collaborative app is “an application that helps people collaborate on a business process,” Teper said. A business process can be anything from submitting a timesheet to filling out a form (plus many more involved and advanced interactions).

Developers can use any tools they are familiar with to write a collaborative app. Low-code tools in the Power Platform family are great, as are Visual Studio, TypeScript, JavaScript, and other pro-dev options. And they can connect to data sources from Microsoft and its partners and competitors thanks to the Microsoft Graph programming interface, the Dataverse shared data service, and Azure data. Microsoft Fluid Framework and loop sync components, adaptive cards, custom connectors, and Azure Communication Services – the chat and meeting capabilities that Microsoft uses in Teams – are other optional items also available to developers. Collaborative apps can appear in Teams, Office, Dynamics, and/or custom line-of-business apps.

The Power Platform, Microsoft’s collection of low-code tools aimed at turning business users into developers, is at the heart of the evolving vision of collaborative apps. (Microsoft officials are also overall positioning Power Platform as key to their Microsoft cloud vision and strategy.)

“We don’t invent our own development tool for Office or Microsoft 365. We rely on the Power Platform,” said Teper.

At the Microsoft Build conference earlier this year, officials announced the ability to build Loop components by updating Adaptive Cards. (Adaptive Cards are an open card exchange format that allows developers to exchange UI content in a common and consistent way.) Developers can convert Adaptive Cards into Loop components or create new Adaptive Card-based Loop components. These Adaptive Card-based Loop components can be viewed using Notepad and Microsoft’s Context IQ AI capabilities. Today Microsoft announced that Power Apps developers can create cards with Power Apps Designer and even use the Power Fx integration. Developers can use the designer to create polls, data collection, surveys, and other types of more advanced apps.

“But it’s not just about Power Platform within Office,” noted Lamanna. “There’s also Office within Power Platform.”

And that’s where today’s announcement of co-authoring within Power App Studio fits. This feature leverages the same underlying infrastructure that enables co-authoring/co-presence within things like Word and PowerPoint, he noted. And at Build earlier this year, Microsoft unpacked Collaboration Controls in Power Apps, allowing developers to drag and drop Microsoft 365 collaboration features like Teams chats, meetings, files, and tasks into custom apps powered by Power apps were created.

Microsoft is experimenting with these new app-building models itself, Lamanna said. Viva Sales, the first “role-based” Viva app designed to help sales reps capture data and integrate it with Teams chat, calls, and Outlook mail, is a prime example of a collaborative app, he said.

“We go the way of what we tell our customers,” added Teper. “The pattern we would say is use the data in Microsoft 365, use Office as a kind of shell, but use Power Platform to build the business processes. This is how we built Viva Sales.”

According to Lamanna, Microsoft has learned how best to build an application within something like Teams. And “copying and pasting a browser-based app as an iFrame in Teams” is possible, but not the best option. More interesting things happen “when you take some kind of big monolithic web app and break it down into lots of bite-sized workflows and micro-apps for Adaptive Cards.” By composing apps this way, “engagement goes through the roof, because that’s how it is.” people are used to replying to messages and emails,” he said.

With all roads at Microsoft today leading to the Microsoft cloud, no definition would be complete without some insight into how the cloud platform aligns with the collaborative apps strategy and vision. Microsoft claims that developers and customers get the inherent security and governance capabilities that come with building on top of the entire Microsoft stack.

Teper’s call to action: “Build collaborative apps with the Power Platform and integrate where it makes sense with Microsoft 365Teams, Office, etc. And you’ll get better apps that are easier to manage, faster.”

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