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You can always tell when Microsoft is serious about a trend because it creates a new programming language to make it easier for developers to tap into that technology.
That's exactly what the software giant has done with its focus on low-code app development. Microsoft has introduced a new programming language called Power Fx, a consistent low-code programming language across Power Platform applications and Microsoft clouds. This language, which will be open-sourced on GitHub, is a low-code language expressed in text that users can work with directly, said Charles Lamanna, corporate vice president of the low-code application platform at Microsoft, in an interview. Based on Excel, the language will provide familiar concepts to millions of users.
"Programming languages are very much in our DNA," Lamanna said, noting that Microsoft has delivered at least four languages that have been widely adopted, including Visual Basic, C#, F# and TypeScript.
"Something that we noticed is that for low-code/no-code, where there are all these experimental expression languages, there really wasn't a name for these things," he said. "And there wasn't a community or open source adoption around these little local programming languages."
Microsoft is taking the low-code programming language it has, Excel derivatives, plus some new concepts for the Power Platform, open-sourcing it, building a community around it, and encouraging other software providers and other companies to adopt it wherever they want to expose a no-code/low-code interaction model -- whether it's a formula bar, or code-behind or data manipulation.
"This is a rallying cry to go start to create an ecosystem and focus on other places where this programming language can show up," Lamanna said.
"We think these new languages have been historically underserved," he said. "They have not gotten the same level of treatment, attention and community that we see for professional developer programming languages."
Power FX limits
A developer would not build an entire application with the language, per se. But in the context of a local development environment, it could be used to do things like lookup and data manipulation. For example, if another large cloud provider had a low-code offering and they wanted to offer a way to write formulas for it, they could use Power Fx. So it's less likely a citizen developer would build an entire application in the language, but instead would do data calculation and manipulation.
Something Microsoft would hope to see is a formula bar across different apps, the way File and Print is universal in applications. "If there could be some way to get to a formula bar in almost every app, then that's kind of like where our head is going," Lamanna said. Power Fx is key to the push toward that goal.
Arnal DayaratnaAnalyst, IDC
"Microsoft can absolutely accelerate low-code development," said Arnal Dayaratna, an IDC research director for software development. "They already have it with their Power Apps platform. But they can move the market significantly by continuing to democratize access to developer tools, and they are in a unique position to do this because of their strengths both in enterprise applications such as the Microsoft Office Suite, as well as professional developer tools located within Azure and Microsoft's larger cloud portfolio."
Low-code goes mainstream?
Awareness of low-code development is now mainstream, but adoption has yet to catch up, Lamanna said. Gartner predicts that the market for low-code tools will grow by 23% to $13.8 billion this year.
"Low-code is definitely mainstream because almost every company out there will have some tool to support it," including hyperscalers, database vendors and other toolmakers, said Jason Wong, an analyst at Gartner.
Indeed, Microsoft faces competition in the low-code market from cloud competitors Google and AWS with their AppSheet and Honeycode products, respectively. Both use a spreadsheet analogy like Power Fx, but neither of them have the entrenched value of Excel.
"I'd say, for quite a number of people, the top programming environment in the world is the Excel formula bar," Lamanna said. "There's just a massive part of the world that knows how to do that well. And you don't always need that; you can do a bunch of stuff visually in Excel. But very often, it's just easier to go off and write a formula, particularly as you end up with people that become experts in the system."
Power Fx is targeted at logic customization across the Power Platform. With its Excel heritage, it is being used as the language to develop canvas apps in Microsoft Power Apps. Power Fx taps into the knowledge of Excel users to reduce barriers for citizen developers getting started with low-code development. Meanwhile, professional developers can accelerate their app development with the simplicity of formulas and code using their favorite professional developer tools.
"Low-code development is already mainstream, but I think Microsoft is in a unique position to make low-code development ubiquitous," said John Bratincevic, a senior analyst at Forrester.
Power Automate Desktop
In another move to democratize development, Microsoft also said it will make its Robotic Process Automation (RPA) tool, Power Automate Desktop, available in Windows.
Power Automate Desktop will be available inside of Windows and available to licensed Windows users at no additional cost. In a few weeks, it will begin to show up in Windows Insider builds for Windows 10.
Microsoft acquired Softomotive last year for its RPA technology and integrated it into the Power Platform
"The idea that everybody who has a PC can be a low-code developer -- this is that vision really starting to come to life," Lamanna said. "Now everybody can get started doing low-code automation."