At the start of this year, we made the decision to go all-in on Microsoft Power Platform and founded a company that focuses on helping organizations on their journey to take ownership of this low-code business application platform. You could therefore say that it’s pretty darn important for us that there is compelling roadmap for the products that represent the technical foundation of our services.
Luckily Microsoft doesn’t show any signs of slowing down the investments into Power Apps, Power Automate, Power BI, Power Virtual Agents and all the underlying elements of the platform. Our MVP team at Forward Forever already did a “Top 3 x 3” highlights article on what each of us found to be the most exciting feature announcements in the 2020 Release Wave 2 release plans that Microsoft published yesterday. I wanted to expand a bit on that top list and reflect on how I see Power Platform evolving based on this new roadmap information.
But first: what happened to Wave 1?
Ah, true. We’re actually only halfway through the April-September period that 2020 Release Wave 1 represents. This means that many of the features I highlighted in my earlier first impressions posts have not yet shipped. Just because there’s a virtual launch event every six months doesn’t mean that it would be the exact time when a big box full of new software is made available. There are no version numbers in the cloud, it’s a continuous release train that runs on its endless route.
It’s important to keep in mind that these are release plans, not release notes. The thing with plans is that they tend to change, and such is also the fate of some items in 2020 Wave 1 that I picked as the higlights in my post back in January. If we look at the change history page in the release plan, for Power Apps alone we see that 15 items had their release schedule changed and 7 were removed from Wave 1. And remember we’re only a bit over 50% through the April-September period, so more changes are bound to still occur.
Changes do happen for the better, too. 8 new features have been added for Power Apps already after the initial release plan. In total there are one hunderd new features added to 2020 Release Wave 1 after January 27th. Wow! I can’t recall how many items in total there were originally, but this really highlights two things:
- The Release Plan is not a static document, rather it’s an evolving backlog of planned features.
- Microsoft has been very actively maintaining the online version of the Release Plan over on docs.microsoft.com.
This is what the product roadmaps for clour services are like today. You can’t simply have a look every 6 months and then forget about them, rather you should always refer to the latest information online. Also, you can be 100% sure that there will be a lot more coming for Power Platform between October 2020 and March 2021 than this first Release Plan version reveals. Just look at Wave 1: we would not have seen from the plan that MS would acquire an RPA vendor like Softomotive, or that they would announce T-SQL support for CDS during MS Build. Get ready to be taken by surprise during Wave 2 as well!
Wave 2 features to keep an eye on
Portals Web API with CRUD support was big news in Wave 1, but the GA date for the feature isn’t until February 2021. It’s all part of the story where Portals is being made more compatible with the two other app types in the family. Wave 2 now promises a preview of PCF control support for Portals in December 2020, which should certainly be a nicely wrapped Xmas present for pro devs if that schedule will hold.
If Portals is getting closer to the mainstream Power Apps types, then the unification of Canvas and Model-driven apps into “Run One UI” is also moving along. By the time the custom pages feature hits public preview in December 2020 it will have been 18 months since we saw the roadmap, but I’m not actually that surprised it’s taking a while for making these 2 very different client technologies work in harmony. It’ll surely be worth the wait from an UX perspective, as the Canvas app embed story has been somewhat limited in its impact so far.
To gain something new means you often must let go of something old, in this case the legacy web client. Transition to Unified Interface has been delayed a bit due to COVID-19, but it is definitely happening. While it will bring a more stict licensing enforcement on app module level, the benefits from features like improved global search experience and improved app header, sitemap and app switching should make it easier for anyone familiar with Microsoft tools to be productive when using
CRM “Model-driven apps in Dynamics 365”.
Once Canvas apps can be natively placed on pages that appear inside the app navigation, they’ll be ever more likely to become an integral part of more complex enterprise applications. This means that also Canvas development practices need to become more mature, which is exactly what the reusable components for business logic are aiming for. PCF components for Canvas apps are also critical to allow the pro dev audience to contribute into low-code app development projects. Code components have already been in preview for a while and GA is expected in March 2021, so obviously injecting custom code into what was originally designed as a “PowerPoint + Excel” experience for citizen developers is a big investment that takes time to polish.
Power Automate has grown into an all-encompassing process automation service that covers both API and non-API (meaning RPA) scenarios. I have to say that for me personally it’s one of the scariest parts of this “low-code” platform due to how much secret formula knowledge one must posses to achieve something where XRM workflows offered a full GUI experience. I’m glad to see that MS is investing not only in the UI flows territory from their Softomotive acquisition but also in making Power Automate work more seamlessly with Power Apps. Simplifying things even further, the coming “diet designer” and templates desined for Microsoft Teams users is an example of how broadly the PaaS foundation of Azure Logic Apps is being productized via its Power Automate UI experiences across the whole MS stack.
From the Data Platform side, we will finally be seeing the ability to use Power BI on system dashboards for Model-driven apps. It’s one of those things that the vast majority of customers probably would have assumed to be possible for ages already. Getting proper support for parameters like environment variables has been a prerequisite to make these components play well together in the Power Platform ALM story. Now, this still doesn’t mean PBI would replace the built-in visualizations from CRM 2011 era, rather we see that MS is actually only working on catching up with the year 2011 when it comes to Unified Interface charts customization (i.e. supporting ASP.Net chart XML based features with the new Highcharts).
Come to think of it, there isn’t a single mention of the TDS endpoint / T-SQL support in either 2020 Wave 1 or 2020 Wave 2 release plans. It’s a good reminder to everyone that despite of the huge volume of information in the release plans, they don’t reveal the complete story of what’s happening with Business Applications beyond the immediately visible end user and app maker features. You’ll still need to do a bit of 1+1 yourself to figure out how things like DirectQuery support enabled by the TDS endpoint might have a dependency on unlocking more modern visualizations on top of CDS data in Power Apps.
While creating charts on a sales pipeline etc. could be seen as just doing old stuff with new tech, what’s really net new in terms of data analysis capabilties is all the goodies coming into CDS integration with Azure Data Lake. Time series data: get the full historical values of business record in a format that you can actually report on (i.e. not audit logs). Soft delete support: instead of keeping all historical data in that fairly expensive CDS database storage, delete the transactional record but still keep the data in the analytical system. Support for entities with attachments: if you’d like to get some value out of the annotation data clogging up your CRM system, push it into the Data Lake where AI can crunch it and generate new insights from it. All in all, this built-in continuous replication of data from the Power Apps / Dynamics 365 app database into Azure Data Lake seems to be truly delivering on the vision of The Real Common Data Service that goes far beyond the boundaries XRM used to have.
If getting data out of CDS is evolving, so are the mechanisms for getting data in. Power Platform dataflows have a lot of potential for sure, yet just like with Power Automate, it’s been difficult for these new generic cloud services to complete with the built-in XRM tools when it comes to feature completeness for CRM customers to achieve their common business goals (use a GUI to automate a process, run a Wizard to import relational data). Power Automate already has the path to “upgrade” the business logic into Azure Logic Apps and now also Power Platform dataflows can grow up to Azure Data Factory, once the March 2021 preview arrives. In the big picture, this ability to start from citizen developer tools and then transition to pro dev methods and systems is a very powerful value proposition from Microsoft to all their customer organizations who are looking to empower their subject matter experts to take steps forward in the day-to-day digital transformation. App creation & automation is where this Maker revolution has started, and I bet we’ll see more and more data driven features in the next phase of Power Platform evolution.
Finally, as the number of apps grows and they become an irreplaceable part of critical business processes, there’s a growing demand for tools to ensure the digital machine is well oiled. As we know, data is the new oil and in this context that means organizations need broader access to telemetry data on how their business apps are working. The 2020 Wave 2 feature that promises to deliver CDS errors, performance data, and diagnostics data in customer’s own Azure Application Insights should do exactly this, by complemeting the built-in metrics available in PPAC with a way for customers to build their own alert systems for both proactive and reactive maintenance. Yet another “grow up to Azure” path that illustrates how closely the low-code application platform-as-a-service will be intertwined with Microsoft’s PaaS offering.