There are a lot of benefits in taking long enough holidays during the summer, like many people here in the Nordics do. Going offline for a while is a great way to reset your brain and force-close all those open browser tabs of the mind, to free up memory capacity for properly engaging in brand new tasks.
If you were lucky enough to set your vacation time between July 21st and August 11th, you managed to dodge an unfortunate episode in software product launches from Redmond. Here are the key dates:
- July 21st (first day of MS Inspire conference): a new brand name “Dataflex” is announced, with Common Data Service renamed as “Dataflex Pro” and a new subscription tier “Dataflex” promised for all Microsoft Teams customers. (My blog post about it is still here.)
- July 29th: the name “Dataflex for Teams” is used for the first time to reference the previous “Dataflex” tier that’s bunlded with Teams, in an effort to make this product connection more clear.
- August 11th: all references to “Dataflex” in all Microsoft websites are taken down. The announcement blog posts are brought back online with the terms “Dataflex” and “Dataflex for Teams” replaced with “Project Oakdale”, and “Dataflex Pro” now reverted back to “Common Data Service”.
What happened? The answer is: litigation from the owner of the trademark “Dataflex”.
There already was an established software product with the name “Dataflex” out there – in fact it had been around for 4 decades already. Immediately upon the launch day of July 21st several community members were quick to point this out, as indeed it was in practice impossible to miss this brand name overlap when using a search engine. Why Microsoft decided to proceed with their plans on renaming CDS into something like this is something we’ll never know for sure. Some had initially speculated that perhaps there was a preliminary agreement in place with Data Access Worldwide to transfer the ownership of the trademark, but based on the immediate legal action that the company understandably took to defend their rights, nothing like this was likely ever discussed. Our conclusion must therefore be that Microsoft knowingly and intentionally attempted to change the name of its existing technology (Common Data Service) into something that was already in use within the same domain by another software company (Dataflex) without considering the consequences.
The end results is almost like a story taken from The Onion. Even if we are living in 2020 right now and the world appears to go mad every few days, it’s still an utterly bizarre episode in software business. I can’t recall seeing anything killed this fast after it’s announcement, which in the case of Microsoft Dataflex was only 21 days. Neither can I think of an example where something with such a clear potential for software product naming conflict would have been attempted. It is indeed similar to as if MS would have launched “PlayStation 6”.
It’s of course not unusual for Microsoft to pull a product name between its announcement and the planned GA. Remember Dynamics 365 Business Edition, for example? Just because we see something presented on slide decks aimed at MS Partners as guidance for building their business around it, that doesn’t guarantee it will ever see the light of day. Shift happens, plans change and a lot of the partners have already become accustomed to this risk as simply the cost of doing business in this ecosystem. This time the product itself is not pulled, though. The need for coming up with a new brand will most likely delay the commercial roll-out of CDS features for Microsoft Teams based apps, but it’s important to keep in mind that this is all still happening. CDS will most likely become a mainstream data platform to replace use cases where SharePoint Lists have previously been used.
SkyDrive is another example of a Microsoft product brand that suffered from the conflict with an existing trademark and had to be renamed OneDrive as a result. BSkyB as a media broadcaster and digital services provider wasn’t entirely in the same business as Microsoft with it’s personal cloud storage that was following in the footsteps of Dropbox, yet the end result of that case showed that at least between large enterprises such near misses with strong brands can become costly. Even features of a product like the “Metro UI” with Windows 8’s modern user experience had to be avoided due to objections from German reltailer Metro AG. Both of these are examples where it wasn’t obvious to an outsider if a trademark was actually violated, though. With Dataflex the evidence was in plain sight for everyone.
Lucky for us, MS had not yet made any public preview or a commercial subscription of the new Dataflex branded services available by the time they had to call the whole thing off. It was only the early adopters in the partner field and the passionate community members a.k.a. #PowerAddicts that lost some of their work hours due to the branding incident. Yeah, I had to go back and edit a number of web pages, rewrite presentation decks, revert our service documents etc. to recover from the erraneous information that had been published on July 21st. The majority of people out there in the MS ecosystem probably didn’t yet even get a chance to understand what Dataflex meant or how it was different from CDS, so they will have dodged the bullet when it comes to loss in productivity.
There is, however, a much greater loss here than the “Find and Replace” activities needed for changing product names. It is the loss of credibility that Microsoft’s Business Applications specifically suffered from this very unfortunate product naming incident. The worst thing is that there has not been any explanation presented to the genereal audience on what’s going on, rather we’ve just seen the word “Dataflex” disappear and get replaced with “Project Oakdale” or CDS. Microsoft at this point is facing legal action from the owner of the Dataflex trademark, which we all know from the many Hollywood movies we’ve watched that “anything they say can and will be used againts them in a court of law”. It is at moments like these where it would be crucial for companies to have a voice, to be able to reach out to their most important audience (customers) and explain what happened & what are they going to do about it.
I can tell you that it would honestly be a full time job keeping up with A) product naming and B) product licensing of Microsoft Business Applications. It’s not full time for me (luckily), but since I also do it as a hobby / community activity, I can say I’m pretty well educated on what the “right” answers in this area would be at any given time. For anyone who actually IS covering the actions of Microsoft full time in a professional manner, Business Applications is an area they usually openly admit to struggle in.
At the end of the day, what matters to each and every one of us the most in this MS ecosystem is how the end customers react to what they see & hear. While the marketing machine at Redmond surely is capable of capturing the attention of IT professionals worldwide with their news and campaigns, what it does not seem to be very good at is explaining “what does this really mean to you”. As the cloud platforms grow and become an ever larger pool of individual apps that form a spider web of integrations underneath the user interface, the need for someone to cut through the marketing speak and explain the customers what’s really happening here seems to be growing exponentially. What we all could do with the Power Platform is simply magical, yet the understanding of A) through which products, B) based on what technology, with C) what levels of effort and D) for what license cost – this level of understanding is lacking pretty much anywhere I look. I’m not talking about the “how to” instructions of building apps but rather the higher level discussion of where business decisions get made. It is here where the damage from confusing messaging is, in my opinion, holding this ecosystem back.
To close things off for now, as we wait for the new product names that Microsoft has said they will be giving to the technology briefly known as Dataflex, let’s recap where we are right now. “Project Oakdale” is the codename that is for the time being used to refer to the “Lite” version of CDS that will be made available to all Microsoft Teams customers at no charge. Common Data Service is what we will continue to use as the term (for now) when talking about the full capabilities of data management, entities, solutions, Model-driven apps and many other advanced features in Power Platform. This post on the Power Apps blog (originally from July 29th) is still valid in every other aspect, apart from that one “D” term that got removed on August 11th.
It’ll all work out in the end, I’m sure. This time next year there will probably be a whole number of other product names that we’ll be using when discussing the latest turn of events in the crazy & exciting world of Microsoft Business Applications. Dataflex and Oakdale will live on as one of those trick questions in the pub quizzes run by the community. No one died as a result of this episode.
In a way, us #PowerAddicts simply got a taste of what the BizApps whirwind must at times feel like for the end customer who isn’t involved with this technology of ours, all day, every day.