Power(apps) to the people

At its annual Build developer conference, Microsoft aims to please coders and front-line workers alike with its drag-and-drop Power app-building platform.

The most groundbreaking announcements to come out of Microsoft’s Build conference, held here this week, don’t just impact the 6,000 developers in attendance. They’re also relevant to the more than 24 million front-line workers out there who can now be developers too.

At the annual gathering, Microsoft unveiled enhancements to its Power Platform, a drag-and-drop programming environment to make it easier for so-called “citizen developers” to build apps to glean insights from internal and external data sources, streamline data gathering and smooth business processes. Power was just announced last year, but Microsoft is quickly fleshing out the platform. Soon, for example, Power will be able to tap blockchain data sources so front-line workers can build apps that can execute contracts and analyze transactions. And Power BI, the platform’s business analytics component, now supports Python and its wide selection of libraries for data visualization and analysis.

On paper at least, the recent interest in citizen developer activity is compelling: who better to improve front-line operations than the people who actually work there? But IT managers have been reticent, because they don’t control the use and development of the apps. So, they could face a network littered with little-used and abandoned apps. And if an app becomes widely used, the only way IT staff can weave it into the existing online infrastructure is to write their own version from scratch.

Microsoft believes it’s addressed those concerns by plunking the Power suite atop the Azure stack. The software giant has built a management framework to help IT keep tabs on apps ginned up on the front line and, if they so choose, take over and customize the most sensitive or widely used. The internet giant also unveiled tools to make it easier for IT to integrate apps built on Power into their existing suite.

As well, the low-code development suite can tap into the same resources as Microsoft’s code-first apps, Visual Studio and Visual Studio Code. Granted, that doesn’t help everyone. But according to a recent Stack Overflow survey, it does help many. Visual Studio Code and Visual Studio are the two most popular coding applications, respectively, with 62.5 percent of developers using at least one, according to the survey. Which means that most developers have a path from PowerApps to serious coding customizations.

Microsoft is also expanding opportunities to flit between low-code and pro-code environments. There’s now a path, for example, for developers to build code-heavy components they can make available to front-line workers so they can drag and drop them into their own Power apps. And developers who are comfortable in their own skin can save time by building the basics in Power, and focusing their coding skills on the higher-value stuff.

I expect to see Microsoft continue to extend the Power Platform’s tentacles into Azure’s myriad gears and pulleys. Blockchain is nice. But what I really want to see is Microsoft enable Power with Azure’s machine learning/artificial intelligence capabilities. If the platform armed front-line workers with tools to tap sensors around the plant for new insights into, say, conserving energy and predicting component failure, that could be just the catalyst IoT seems to be waiting for.

Indeed, that would be powerful. With a capital “P.”

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