The low-code and no-code development tools that make up Microsoft’s Power Platform are increasingly important to the company and to enterprises around the world. It’s a trend accelerated by the sudden digital transformations forced by a global pandemic and the resulting shifts in working patterns. Today’s spotlight is on the enterprise app gap, where lack of development resources has left staff resorting to workarounds for outdated business processes.
It’s no wonder that low-code tools have become a key element of the modern enterprise toolkit. At one end of the scale, we have user-focused tools like Access and Excel that deliver desktop and web applications built around simple formula languages. At the other end is the classic Visual Basic which simplifies building form-based user interfaces to line-of-business software. With a mix of process and user interface tools, you can think of the Power Platform as the next generation of business software development tools, and Microsoft is relying on its decades of experience building out the Power Platform. This 2022 release is the fifth major update.
I was able to talk to Charles Lamanna, corporate vice president, Business Apps & Platform and the Power Platform’s lead, in advance of Build 2022 to get a feel for what this new release brings to developers. Microsoft has been extending its low-code tools to support the full software development life cycle, supporting repositories such as GitHub, adding the Power FX functional programming language, and providing round-trip access to tools such as Visual Studio Code.
There’s a lot in the new release, with major updates to the Power Virtual Agents conversational bot tools, as well as automated scaling for process automation tools building on Azure’s serverless features. Perhaps the biggest new feature in this Power Platform update is Power Pages.
Power Pages: rapid web app development
Building on the existing Power Apps Portals, Power Pages is designed to rapidly build data-driven web applications that replace the old Access-based tools. By taking advantage of the cloud-hosted Dataverse environment, Power Pages works with existing data models, both in the Power Platform and in the wider Dynamics 365 line-of-business environment.
Applications are built using a web-based visual designer that allows you to pick and edit common layouts, applying customizations and adding links to data services. A built-in data workspace helps you design and test queries before adding them to your site. There’s even a quick way to test the mobile version of Power Pages sites; a QR code provides a link to a private mobile preview.
Lamanna noted that the Power Pages tools have been tested by several large customers. One interesting example comes from the New Zealand Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment which used Power Pages and other Power Platform tools to quickly roll out a reboot of a struggling immigration application site as the country began to emerge from one of the strictest COVID-19 isolations, opening up to the world after two years. The new service used Power Pages to collect user data, a Power App to handle approvals, and a set of Power Automate flows to deliver notifications. The resulting site processed more than 100,000 applications on its launch day whereas its traditionally developed predecessor used to crash when presented with more than 5,000 applications.
Exploring the Dataverse on the web
Using Dataverse avoids many of the pitfalls that came with using Access. Instead of silos of data on desktops and file servers, you have access to cloud-hosted corporate data that spans the entire organization. There’s an additional benefit as the Power Platform is built on the same Azure Active Directory-based authentication platform as Dataverse. This allows you to apply simple role-based access controls to data to ensure that users only get to work with the data they need, and only the users who need to change and update data get more than read access.
The combination of Power Pages and Dataverse allows you to build web-based process automation tools using the Power Automate Dataverse connectors to monitor for changes and to respond, feeding new data where it’s needed and triggering actions in connected applications. Lamanna describes it as an “opportunity for consistent and repeatable development with low-code tools.”
One interesting feature is automatic support for Progressive Web Applications. Your Power Pages applications are ready for use offline, and because they automatically deliver responsive designs, they run on both desktop and mobile devices.
Power Apps Express Design: an AI-powered UI builder
There’s another important role for the Power Platform we often overlook; it’s an important tool for application prototyping. It’s long been a truism that the most widely used wireframing tool is PowerPoint; its hyperlinking tools turn presentations into visual prototypes with active buttons. With the launch of the new Power Apps Express Design, Microsoft is taking this approach a step further, going from design images directly to working application user interfaces.
Power Apps Express Design builds on one of the biggest developments of the last year, Power Apps Ideas, which added machine-learning-based tools to go from an English expression to Power FX code. This used the GPT-3 natural language models from OpenAI (which are being released to Azure users today as well) to write code for you, as well as programming-by-example techniques to build and test queries and output pages.
The new tools use similar techniques to analyze images and generate a working user interface from them. You’ll need a labeled sketch to start with, which can be delivered using tools like Figma or extracted from a PDF. You can even use a photograph of a sketch on a meeting room whiteboard. Microsoft’s machine learning tools can go from rough sketches to accurate layouts, generating shapes from hand-drawn lines. Customers in the early access program have gone even further, using screenshots of old Visual Basic or Access apps to quickly modernize aging legacy code, duplicating existing user interfaces in the new platform.
Although the feature hasn’t been extended to tools like Whiteboard yet, it’s easy to see how this could form the basis of a collaborative design tool for rapid prototyping. A hybrid team working in an office and at home could use a shared Whiteboard space on large-screen devices in a meeting room and on personal PCs inside Teams to sketch out a UI and go straight to a working prototype prior to refining the design for production. This model fits well with the cross-disciplinary fusion teams approach Microsoft suggests for Power Platform development, mixing professional developers, designers, users, and stakeholders to manage the low-code application life cycle.
Welcome to the AI-mediated future of development
As Lamanna says, this points to a new future of application development: “I think that’s the future we’re going to. How do you make application authoring more collaborative between humans, as well as with an AI which helps you go faster?” With the Power Platform and concepts like fusion teams, we’ve built tools to help developers collaborate with each other and with users. Now we’re providing ways to help everyone code more quickly and more effectively, building on a body of enterprise code that’s now generations deep.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect is that it makes application development more human. Lamanna suggests it’s going to be an attractive way to work “because you can stay in the human language land of drawings, examples, and natural language, as opposed to having to be in the highly sterile nature of a programming language.” With AI assistance like this, he hopes to make us more productive developers. It’s an intriguing prospect for new ways of both building code and development teams.