By: Adrian Bridgwater
Microsoft has always had to straddle an arguably difficult position in the software trade. The company has always needed to appear technically intricate, granular and powerful in the eyes of hard-core software developers. At the same time, the company has always had to present its software to market with a user-friendly ‘anyone can use it’ out-of-the-box style and approach.
There’s a little of that duality in the firm’s latest power play, which is a combination pack of technologies wrapped up under the Microsoft Power Platform brand.
This is all about presenting a selection of heavyweight backend technologies to hard-core developers and data scientists, but also would-be so-called citizen developers who are typically businesspeople with an interest in getting applications and data to work the way they want them to work.
CEO Satya: be cool (to others)
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has tried to explain to his developer team that it’s not always about being the most amazing software engineer that creates the next big thing. Instead, it’s about creating amazing software power and putting power that in the hands of people who need it.
“You join here [Microsoft, the company itself], not to be cool, but to make others cool,” said Nadella, in a comment that has been widely reported internally and officially referenced here on c|net.
What Nadella meant was: build something so amazing that it empowers other people. This, of course, is a platform play, not a product play i.e. he wants people to use Microsoft technologies to create something great, rather than use an existing Microsoft technology to be great per se. It’s a logical enough strategy i.e. software products come and go, but platforms are more foundational and expansive… and so (typically) form a better long term business bet.
Microsoft Power Platform
The component parts of the Microsoft Power Platform have all previously existed as more distinct entities. This is essentially a coming together of Microsoft Power BI, Microsoft PowerApps and Microsoft Flow as a more unified offering available on top of Microsoft Azure cloud services.
“Our Power Platform – spanning Power BI, PowerApps and Flow – enables anyone in an organization to start building an intelligent app or workflow where none exists. It is the only solution of its kind in the industry – bringing together no-code/low-code app development, robotic process automation and self-service analytics into a single, comprehensive platform. And it enables extensibility across Microsoft 365 and Dynamics 365 as well as the leading third-party SaaS business applications,” said Microsoft CEO Nadella, in a press statement.
So just looking at the component parts again and explaining their functions, we have Microsoft Power BI, Microsoft PowerApps and Microsoft Flow.
Microsoft Power BI is self-service Business Intelligence (BI) app that works to connect and analyze business data and present a graphical visualization of it on screen. It supports 43 languages and the data it ingests can come from an Excel spreadsheet or SharePoint list, an Oracle database or from an SAP or Salesforce application. Nearly 10 petabytes of data are uploaded to the service each month with more than 10 million report and dashboard queries executed against that data every hour.
Microsoft PowerApps forms the company’s citizen application development platform. Theoretically ‘anyone’ (says Microsoft) can use PowerApps to build web and mobile applications without writing code. There’s also a natural connection between Power BI and PowerApps so that users can put insights (from Power BI) in the hands of maintenance workers and others on the frontline in apps built using PowerApps.
Lastly here there is Flow. This is Microsoft’s user interface that allows users to work with Robotic Process Automation (RPA), a technology designed to help automate simple tasks (and reduce operational errors) through automated workflows.
Data flows, everywhere
Corporate vice president in Microsoft’s business applications group James Phillips explains that the team’s vision for Microsoft Power Platform started from the recognition that data is increasingly flowing from everything, and a belief that organizations that harness their data – to gain insights then used to drive intelligent business processes – will outperform those that don’t.
“We also recognize there aren’t enough programmers, data scientists and tech professionals to go around. So our goal was to build a platform not targeting these technology experts but for [ordinary] people – and the millions of other frontline workers who see opportunities every day to create something better than the status quo, but who’ve never been empowered to do anything about it,” wrote Philips, in a length Microsoft cloud blog.
Philips and team say that the guiding vision for Microsoft Power Platform was a framework they called the ‘Triple-A Loop’ i.e. a closed-loop system allowing users to gain insights from data (Analyze) used to drive intelligent business processes via apps they build (Act) and processes they automate (Automate).
Why play platform games?
We might stand back and ask why Microsoft is so focused on its new and wider approach to platform games of this kind — and there are three fairly reasonable suggestions we can make here.
First, Microsoft has always done platforms i.e. Windows was and still is a platform and you run other things (apps, databases and other computing services) upon it.
Second, Microsoft has invested heavily in its own Azure cloud platform (which features as a key element of Microsoft Power Platform) and, over and above that, the firm has for a long time now been working to make large portions of its stack (such as Office as a platform, which we detailed here in 2015) big enough to be considered platforms in their own right.
Third, Microsoft (under CEO Nadella at least) appears to understand the power of platforms both inside the Microsoft universe and outside of it. Be that other platform Linux, be it Android or be it a major vendor’s data platform suite from the likes of SAP, Salesforce, Oracle and so on.
This is a world where data comes first — sometimes from databases, sometimes from AI computations, sometimes from the Internet of Things (IoT) and its devices and sometimes from actual users — even before the actual software applications that will feed on that data. That core fact very arguably makes any platform play strategically smarter for long term success… if perhaps not just a little cool too.
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I am a technology journalist with over two decades of press experience. Primarily I work as a news analysis writer dedicated to a software application development ‘beat’; but, in a fluid media world, I am also an analyst, technology evangelist and content consultant.