Microsoft dropped a big bomb this week with their Dataflex announcement. I don’t think I’ve ever had as many notifications on my social media apps as there were after I posted my two Dataflex articles on this blog and our company blog.
Knowing that it wouldn’t be a simple topic for outsiders to grasp, with the many different dimensions that Microsoft’s various product teams would use in their own messaging, I wanted to make sure there was at least one article out there that would explain what Dataflex means for Teams, Power Apps and Dynamics 365 in the big picture of business applications. It was great to see that this explanation I came up with was also adopted elsewhere in the mainstream tech media:
Here are some of the topics that the community has raised up since the July 21st announcement, based on the still fairly limited amount of public information that is out there on the coming Dataflex and the rebranded Dataflex Pro (formerly CDS).
Yeah, about that name…
For the small minority of techies who have actually heard of the Common Data Service (or XRM), the need for inventing a new name for their beloved service that remains the same (i.e. Dataflex Pro) wasn’t very obvious. For the larger crowd that works with Office tools and Microsoft Teams, Dataflex is a brand new thing, which understandably has made MS think whether a brand new brand would also be useful at this point.
Unfortunately the name “Dataflex” isn’t so unique that there wouldn’t be some clashing with non-MS products out there. In this case, there has been an existing trademark within pretty much the same application development domains since the year 1981 already.
Why not call it “Power Dataflex” or “Power [anything]” then? Wouldn’t that have been better in line with the whole Power Platform story, as well as reduce the chances of a legal dispute? Probably so, but it’s important to understand that this Power thing actually isn’t the only purpose that Microsoft has in mind for the platform:
The entry level offering of Dataflex for all Teams users is an important milestone for XRM/CDS/MDF (not sure I want to adopt “MDF” as the acronym just yet, actually). Don’t be surprised if the same technology will pop up in more & more places within the MS Cloud in the coming months and years.
Licensing details: TBC = “To Be Confusing”
The specifics of what is and isn’t included with Dataflex didn’t get released yet, as this new service is still pending for the public preview to start sometime in August. At the announcement day it has clearly been more important for MS to higlighlight what you can do with the non-Pro Dataflex vs. what you can’t. Even after the eventual GA, we can expect to see Microsoft use just the term “Dataflex” when referring to Pro capabilities like API access and custom code. When raising this issue of one additional source of Power Platform licensing complexity, Charles Lamanna confirmed that this is indeed intentional:
This comparison to Power BI actually makes a lot of sense. In fact, much of what has happened with the platform side of MS Business Applications has been taken from the Power BI playbook used in conquering the Nr. 1 spot in business intelligence products within a relatively short period of time. So, here’s how the product levels are positioned over there:
- Power BI: free for anyone to use, also for publish to web
- Power BI Pro: user specific license required for sharing reports across the organization (non-public)
- Power BI Premium: capacity based offering that allows enterprise customers to remove the per-user element from the licensing equation
What Dataflex and Dataflex Pro are going to offer is quite similar to this structure. No, I don’t quite expect the completely free edition of Teams to offer Dataflex features anytime soon, but the bundling into Office 365 & Microsoft 365 effectively makes it free for a huge pool of organizations to start using. When you then need to build some apps that go beyond the scenarios of team specific use cases and want to enforce some organization wide policies on it, Dataflex Pro may quickly become a requirement.
What may initially sound like not a very profitable business model (give stuff away for free) can result in a lot of positive effects on the company wide revenue streams of Microsoft if played right. After all, we’ve already seen the plumbing from under the Dynamics products to being reused as a platform for DIY apps (Power Apps), so this strategy of exposing as many users to Dataflex as possible is a clear continuation of that path.
Following the Power BI model, the next logical step after Dataflex and Dataflex Pro would now be to offer a Dataflex Premium service for enterprise customers who are more willing to pay for the capacity rather than for each and every seat. Whether MS ever launch this or not, the question of capacity consumption in terms of storage and API calls is bound to become a big source of confusion with the “free” vs. paid plans for Power Apps. Luckily the team behind Power Platform Center of Excellence Starter Kit is already working on making some of these governance tools compatible with the non-premium resources:
SharePoint: both dead and alive
The debate on why you should not use SharePoint lists as your app’s data source vs. why they area a perectly valid option has been going on for probably longer than Power Apps has existed. The inclusion of Dataflex into the core services of O365/M365 subscriptions has now prompted people to claim that app development inside SharePoint should be avoided altogether.
There are plenty of greant points in the blog post by Andrew Welch on the impact that Dataflex will have on the app strategy for organizations. Certainly the old reality of avoiding CDS due to licensing costs will need to be replaced with a more modern view into the low-code application development landscape in Microsoft 365. SharePoint will remain as the service most well known in the Modern Workplace technology category for sure, but questioning whether it’s the right tool for managing structured data should now become a mandatory step in all app plannign discussions.
One thing that’s clearly stealing the thunder from the Dataflex announcement and making the M365 folks even more confused is the GA announcement of Microsoft Lists that took place at the very same time. Yeah, this is just classic MSFT – having multiple products with overlapping feature sets and competing marketing messages.
Teams: your business app platform?
No matter how cool the apps that we build for customers (and ourselves) may be, it’s important to keep in mind that the majority of the average information worker’s time is spent inside applications that are exactly the same for everyone – like Microsoft Teams. This recent news about Slack first claiming Teams is not even a competitor to them, then moving to filing a lawsuit against Microsoft for bundling Teams with O365/M365 subscriptions, tells a lot about the game being played:
It’s a fight for the future of work, which will largerly be remote work. The digital transformation of business processes will require many, many apps that are tailored for a specific task inside a particular organization. Nevertheless, it’s the umbrella above them, meaning the platform for teamwork, that will drive a lot of the technology choices and licensing dollars into the online meeting and remote work ecosystem that provides the different business apps the common context.
If there would indeed be a significant uptake on the modern task based “mini” apps that do one thing well and we’d see organizations abandond their earlier enterprise system monoliths, then the question is where would all these apps logically land in? I haven’t really seen the enterprise app store concept being heavily utilized out there in the real world yet. Nor has there been much hope for Windows to enjoy a similar success with users installing apps from Microsoft Store, like they do all the time with iOS and Android.
It’s been already a decade since the app store concept was first launched for Microsoft Business Applications. AppSource is a great channel for distributing Dynamics 365 and Power Apps solutions in theory, but in practice it’s a lousy marketplace for most ISVs to do business in:
I’m not yet going to claim “this time it’s different” on the Teams app store and the Dataflex powered apps that can soon be published there by both 3rd party vendors and internal citizen developers. The idea however does sound like something that might scale better. Instead of deploying add-ons or templates into the single system of record like CRM, the new Teams based deployment model could allow a smaller group of users to install apps into an environment with a lot more narrow impact on organization-wide processes and data models. This could well be a more logical approach for Power Apps based solutions to find their way into more and more tenants.