On April 29, 2016, Microsoft released two new services into public preview: Microsoft Flow and PowerApps. This is a milestone for Microsoft in its current drive to give power users the tools to create no-code solutions that connect to external data sources not only within, but also external to, the Microsoft eco-system.
In recent months, Microsoft released Office Connectors, which provide Office 365 Groups data access to a myriad of data sources such as SharePoint, SalesForce, Twitter, MailChimp, Dropbox and more. In this vein, Microsoft Flow and PowerApps also allow users to interact with data stored within their tenant as well as with data stored in external locations.
Microsoft Flow provides users with a user-friendly design surface for creating a serious of actions that take place based on certain events which act as a trigger. Users can put conditions in place so that only particular events trigger an action, and multiple resulting actions can be associated with the triggering event. Additionally, flows can be scheduled to run on a regular basis. Flows can be saved to a user’s Flow gallery.
Users can start from scratch or use pre-defined templates to carry out tasks such as:
- Saving e-mail attachments to a SharePoint library or to Dropbox.
- Using machine translation to translate non-English e-mails.
- Sharing tweets on Facebook.
- Copying Salesforce leads into Microsoft CRM.
- Creating a new Slack notification when a new issue is created in GitHub.
- Creating an Azure Blob from an Azure queue message.
The design surface makes it easy for non-developers to create fairly complex “flows”. The flows themselves, as seen from the sampling of available templates, could be used by everyone from sales professionals, to marketing professionals, to information workers, to developers, to network administrators.
Anyone can sign up for the public preview by visiting https://flow.microsoft.com.
PowerApps is a tool that has actually been around for a while, having started out as a beta product called Siena. Microsoft relaunched and rebranded it late last year and now has reached the public beta milestone. This tool, like Microsoft Flow, provides a design surface for creating electronic forms that can be used to access and update data stored in any number of external locations. Like with Office 365 connectors and Microsoft Flow, PowerApps let you create forms that retrieve and update information in data sources both within and external to your Office 365 tenant. While these forms can be browser-enabled, they can be created in such a way as to target specifically phones or tablets, thus keeping in step with the Windows 10 “mobile first” strategy.
Beyond just being a basic tool for creating forms and mobile-first applications, PowerApps can leverage Azure for handling things like authentication and application logic. It’s possible to create your own custom API to connect to your data store (stored on premise, in Azure, or in some other location), and store your API in the Azure App Service. Furthermore, you can use Azure AD to handle authentication. By taking advantage of this functionality, it’s possible to create rich back-end functionality hidden behind a rather innocuous data-entry mechanism found in PowerApps.
To learn more about some of the main features of PowerApps, take a look at Dan Holme’s article published on IT Unity: PowerApps: Mobile Applications by the Business, for the Business.
Anyone can sign up for the public preview by visiting https://powerapps.microsoft.com.
What’s to Come
Microsoft seems to be moving quickly with these two service offerings and clearly, more is to come. Expect to see greater integration points within Office 365 and more connectors to additional external data sources. Right now, the help documentation is rather light, but it will surely improve and grow as time progresses. While the user interface for PowerApps is still a bit confounding, Microsoft seems to be improving its contextual help documentation to help users find their way around. Along the lines of facilitating custom APIs, expect Microsoft to expand functionality and for organizations wanting to deploy custom apps within their environments.
While Flow and PowerApps are still fairly simple to use, they are not the types of tools to be designed by basic office workers; these tools are definitely for use by advanced, not-quite-developer types within an organization. However, the same could have been said for SharePoint Designer and InfoPath Designer. Like any powerful toolset, the more a user knows, the greater they can leverage its functionality.
You can read the following announcements from Microsoft regarding today’s preview releases: