In-Depth

How Microsoft PowerApps and Flow Can Automate, Even Save App Development

From Visual Studio Live! Washington, DC: Microsoft PowerApps and Flow take RAD tools to another level, by automating custom application development through low-code tools.

Application development can be a tricky process with respect to expense and ROI. If it's a truly customized app for such a specific purpose and relatively small audience, it can be a challenge for an organization to justify the expense of developing that app. Microsoft's Saurabh Pant hopes Microsoft PowerApp can help change the equation.

Pant kicked off Tuesday morning at Visual Studio Live! in Washington, DC with a keynote, "Microsoft PowerApps and Flow--Building Apps that Mean Business, with Low to No Code." Pant is a Principal Product Manager for the Customer and Partner Success Team at Microsoft.

As Pant began his introduction to Microsoft PowerApps and Flow, he put them in perspective for the crowd of assembled developers. "For folks who have been with Visual Studio for a while, this is not the first time you've heard about rapid app development," said Pant. "As the years progress, we're going to talk about why low code is relevant once again."

PowerApps is an automated platform for building custom business apps for specific purposes. Those apps can then connect to enterprise data and work over the web and on mobile devices. Flow is a similarly situated platform for developing workflows that connect to SharePoint Online.

Pant spent a lot of time speaking with his customers about their priorities and pain points. "So why low code development?" he asked. "I talk with customers--about two or three every day. One thing always comes across is, they have a whole set of problems, but with limited money to spend and few ways to do it."

While there are several relatively low-cost routes for developing apps for specific purposes, not all are suited toward truly customized and specific apps for specific purposes. "It's obvious to go with a cloud-based app. A lot of SaaS apps come with a corresponding mobile app. Lots of businesses take this route, and it's a great route to go if it works for you," said Pant.

For truly custom apps, it can get a bit trickier--and more expensive. "Another route is to have a custom app built, to hire someone to build a custom app for your needs," he said. "This works if the organization building the app absolutely wants a native app targeted at a specific audience. What we see consistently, though, is there's a whole other plethora of apps the enterprise may want to build. The reason these apps don't get built is they don't meet the ROI requirements."

For this reason, many paper-based tasks often remain paper based as they may be too specialized or address too small or too specific an audience within the business. He supported this with several examples later in the presentation. "A productivity framework like PowerApp can help be that bridge, enabling citizen developers to have more of a role in app development," he said.

Then Pant moved on to describe the specifics of PowerApp. "There are a few elements to PowerApp. It's really a service for creating and building custom business apps across platforms. It's about building solutions," he said. "If there is any customer business focused on scenarios that you can't buy an app for anywhere else, this make sense. And it's strictly for business apps."

He then described the several components of PowerApp and how it operates. "The first focus is mobile-first apps for cross platforms. The second is cloud first. The first time enterprises are migrating data to the cloud, they'll be able to connect to that enterprise data based on someone's ID without writing a single line of code," he said. "The connectivity on back-end solves that problem. Then the studio on the front-end has the 'what you see is what you get' drag-and-drop elements [for building your app]. Anyone who is comfortable using Office should feel comfortable using this."

Once an app is finished, it's available immediately. "The third piece is, sure you can build the apps, sure you can connect without writing code, but you can publish and share apps in a matter of seconds," said Pant. "Build your app and concentrate on where you can add the greatest value. We're trying to democratize app development."

Pant described several customer references, organizations that have used PowerApp to automate previously paper-based processes:

  • National Trust is a UK-based nonprofit organization charged with preserving heritage houses, or properties being preserved for their historic value. The organization developed a tablet-based app for its field inspectors out inspecting properties.
  • Drive Time is a used car reseller that developed an app for buyers at auctions to be able to quickly inspect and report on used cars and be more efficient during the actual auction process, which proceeds much too quickly for them to keep up with using paper-based processes.
  • The third was another field worker app for a company that cleans gas tanks for service stations. This company also took what was once a paper-based process and migrated that data and process to SharePoint Online. Their custom app connected and backed up field workers to SharePoint Online.

He spent much of his time presenting a demo of building an app live on stage with PowerApp. "I want to give you a feel of what you can build with PowerApp, so I'll be building custom app for a sales organization. Platform takes care of all the plumbing for you." After working through the process of building a sales app live on stage, he also briefly showed building a workflow with Flow.

The next Visual Studio Live! event will be held at Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, WA this August 14-18. Check here for more information.

About the Author

Lafe Low has been a technology editor and writer for more than 25 years. Most recently, he was the editor in chief of TechNet magazine. He has also held various editorial positions with Redmond magazine, CIO magazine and InfoWorld. He also launched his own magazine entitled Explore New England, and has published four editions of his guidebook The Best in Tent Camping: New England.

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