Microsoft tunes Power Platform for pros, citizen developers

Microsoft's PowerApps low-code app dev environment has quietly crept into a leadership position among low-code tools with its ties to Microsoft Office and Dynamics platforms.

Despite little fanfare, Microsoft's Power Platform low-code offering, with its PowerApps app dev component, has gained ground in the landscape of low-code app development environments.

When you think of low code platforms, names like Mendix, Kony, OutSystems, Appian and Salesforce come to mind. However, Microsoft's PowerApps has joined the top tier of low-code tools in the latest Forrester Wave report on low-code systems.

Microsoft's Power Platform low-code development platform is composed of three products: PowerApps, Power BI, and Microsoft Flow. PowerApps is a low-code way to build web and mobile applications. Power BI provides a low-code way to do data analytics and data insights. And Flow is a low-code, no-code way to automate business processes and workflow.

"We evaluated [PowerApps] before and found that it was just not up to snuff," said John Rymer, an analyst at Forrester. "They came back with a major release in March of 2018 that was much improved and we decided to include it in the next evaluation."

Microsoft Power Platform tweaks enable CI/CD, Azure DevOps

At the recent Build 2019 conference, Microsoft updated the Power Platform to make it more attractive to professional developers. The PowerApps Component Framework allows professional developers to write custom controls or reusable components for PowerApps. Microsoft also added application lifecycle management to the platform, which enables CI/CD and Azure DevOps integration.

"We have customers with thousands of developers who use Power Platform as part of their day-to-day app development, and for them it must integrate with CI/CD," said Charles Lamanna, general manager of the Business Applications Platform at Microsoft. "And the PowerApps command-line interface is the only way you can do that because with low code it's usually UI-only to deploy."

Microsoft also delivered a low-code approach to blockchain app development, providing blockchain integration to Azure in the form of connectors.

Microsoft's Power Platform
Components of Microsoft Power Platform: Power BI, PowerApps, and Flow.

Ease of use for nondevelopers

I had no prior programming experience. PowerApps was pretty straightforward from its ability to create an app directly from a SharePoint list.
Lauren Taylor Assistant principal, Manitou Park Elementary school

In the two years since PowerApps came on the scene, the platform has amassed more than 2.5 million developers, in two primary demographics, Lamanna said. Citizen developers live in an Excel or PowerPoint world -- if you can use PowerPoint and Excel, you can use Power Platform, he said. Professional developers also use some of the visual tools, but they want to check in their code, and they want source control and the ability to version and merge with other developers in a DevOps world, and deploy it via CI/CD.

Lauren Taylor, an assistant principal at Manitou Park Elementary school in Tacoma, Wash., has created two apps to improve the school's productivity and maximize student collaboration. One is an app to help target students' reading strengths and needs, and then meet to confer with them about their reading. The other is an app on a program called Check-in/Check-out, which helps with students' social emotional needs.

"I had no prior programming experience," she said. "PowerApps was pretty straightforward from its ability to create an app directly from a SharePoint list. I've learned so much more through trial and error, as well as from the Power Platform community, so I've been able to make my apps better."

Creating a new class of developers

Low-code development is at an inflection point, as software development evolves to include business people as developers, Forrester's Rymer said. "Rather than the millions of developers we have now, multiply that by 10 with the addition of business people into the mix," he said.

PowerApps offers benefits to both citizen developers and professionals, but there are potential flies in the ointment. The tool does make it easier for nondevelopers to build apps, but offers several ways to accomplish a task, which can make things complicated for some users, Rymer said.

However, depending on For PowerApps users with an appetite to learn more about coding, the tool provides a bridge to Visual Studio for citizen developers, Microsoft's Lamanna said. New developers, particularly older users experienced with products like Excel and SharePoint, would be better off with a tool to teach them high-level concepts visually, he said.

To that end, Microsoft hopes to transform some of its huge community of Microsoft Office users into developers, or at least into low-code developers, Lamanna said. The company also plans to tap into its 16 million Visual Studio developers and 36 million GitHub developers, he added.

However, Microsoft's positioning of PowerApps as a low-code platform versus its Visual Studio professional IDE raises another question, Rymer said. For example, to work with the company's Visual Studio flagship IDE, PowerApps users must obtain additional licenses.

"They don't have their act together between the two groups," Rymer said. "They are not altogether on the role of PowerApps in their overall strategy."

This story was updated with information about Forrester's analysis of PowerApps, and potential concerns about complexity and positioning against Visual Studio IDE.

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