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Newsletter: Perspectives on Power Platform

Company: Niiranen Advisory Oy

How naming works in the Power Platform universe

Dataverse instead of CDS, tables instead of entities, Customer Insights instead of... Customer Insights. Don't get too attached to any particular name in the Power Platform and BizApps world, as the only constant here is change.

After the peculiar episode in July-August timeframe when Microsoft first tried to rebrand the Common Data Service and had to later cancel their plans, we’ve been eagerly awaiting to hear what they are actually going to call CDS from now on. Yesterday the Teams based features known as Project Oakdale finally went GA and now we know the answer. I won’t focus here on the actual features, but you can read my thoughts on them from the Forward Forever team’s blog:

Hello Microsoft Dataverse

The mapping of the old & new names is quite straightforward:

  • CDS = Dataverse
  • Project Oakdale a.k.a. “CDS Lite” = Dataverse for Teams

Not all that different from their initial plans of using the name “Dataflex”, which didn’t go through since the owner of that trademark considered it to be an infringement and sued MS. Is the name “Dataverse” unique then? Not entirely, as there appears to be at least the Harvard Dataverse out there. Luckily it’s not as directly related to low-code application development platforms as the DataFlex that caused grief the last time.

Just because there are other existing products out there in the IT space that use a particular word, this doesn’t mean new products would never appear in the market with the same name. As an example, last month a service called Microsoft Clarity was made Generally Available. Is “Clarity” a brand name that isn’t used by any other IT product? Of course it isn’t. The first thing that comes to my mind is Clarity PPM project & portfolio management software, but search engines will reveal many others. Heck even MS has acquired a BI software company called ProClarity back in 2006.

That’s just how it goes in the real world. Coming up with a name that hasn’t ever been used before yet also means something is not an easy task. If instead of a Globally Unique ID you’re aiming for a product name that actually contains some hints about what the product does, then your choices will always be limited.

Ah, the Choice / Choices in life…

Which brings us to:

Terminology updates inside the Dataverse

Not only does the name of the technolgy itself change from CDS to Dataverse, there have been a number of terminology updates to the foundational concepts of the data platform:

  • Entity > Table
  • Field / Attribute > Column
  • Record > Row
  • Option set / Picklist > Choice
  • Multi select option set > Choices
  • Two options > Yes/No

For a quick explanation about the scope of changes, see this short video by David Yack:

I bet this is a bigger change for many of the professionals in Power Platform and Dynamics 365 area than the new Dataverse brand. We’ve been talking about entities ever since the birth of MS CRM and now all of a sudden the idea of “entities are much, MUCH more than a mere database table” should be replaced with “fine, they are tables”.

Why are these changes necessary then? Largely for the same reasons why a more approachable name was needed for CDS: the target group for this technology is no longer the same – it is considerably broader. Microsoft doesn’t want the platform to be an exclusive club for those who thoroughly understand the business process management and data modeling techniques offered by their products, sometimes only after having gone through training courses and technical certifications. No, this needs to be something a power user that’s equipped with nothing more than a Microsoft Teams license can quickly figure out on their own.

The path towards Teams as a platform brings more changes than just new names for familiar things. Previously the data model construction was a back-end task handled largely separately from configuring the app’s front-end. With Dataverse for Teams and later presumably in other UI’s, too, the interactive table editor supports both data model design and data entry all in one – much like a pre-built app á la Microsoft Lists does today. It doesn’t remove all the other functionality of entities in the underlying relationship management system, but it makes these optional at the start. You could just build a table like in Excel or Access, then later take it further as the app requirements become better defined.

For those who have mastered the earlier XRM universe, the simplification of the terminology that was very specific and accurate to what the platform does may feel like a slap in the face. How can Microsoft tell us that we should pretend that it’s just a database table when we know the reality as well as the history? There isn’t much of an upside for these technical professionals in the new naming – at least if they don’t need to interact much with business users unfamiliar with the core concepts of CDS.

We’ll get over it, though. Developers and even many no-code customizers will probably hold on to the entity/field terminology for quite a while – especially when on the API level everything the terms are not expected to change (at least for now). Having this dual reality of tables and entities isn’t going to present a huge cognitive challenge for those who’ve been with the platform for a longer time. The old content from pre-Dataverse era may cause confusion for the newbies, but we’ve already been through the merger of Power Apps & XRM a short while ago, which had a much more profound impact on the names of concepts in the platform. This too shall pass.

While it may not be of much consolation, there’s one thing that we know won’t change: this changing of product and feature names isn’t ever going to stop.

Why is this naming thing so hard in BizApps?

I’m not going to write a four-part series on the product naming complexity just yet (like I did on the complexity of Power Platform licensing). Let’s try and keep it within this blog post for now. So, here are four reasons that make naming especially tricky in the context of Microsoft Business Applications are:

  1. Ambiguity
  2. Hierarchy of concepts
  3. Shifting product boundaries
  4. Marketing goals vs. market needs

1. Ambiguity

In a universe as broad as Power Platform, there can easily be overlap in naming elements of that platform that serve different purposes but really should have a fairly generic name. As an example, “a Power Apps portal” and “the Power Apps portal” are 2 different things. Excuse me, what?!? Yes, it’s all in the documentation. Power Apps portals are one of types of apps you can build, whereas the Power Apps portal is the place to create new tables and columns. People tend to refer to the latter one as the Maker Portal thanks to its URL, but it’s good to keep in mind that URLs in Power Platform do also change occasionally.

Layout components

This is why we now have Model-driven app forms which use the word “column” for both describing a field on a form as well as the number of adjacent containers within a tab or section. The original intentions for using easy and generic terms can sometimes create confusing results. If not in their native English language then most probably somewhere down the line when the terms get localized to a multitude of different languages.

2. Hierarchy of concepts

You won’t always have a clear view of what individual products and technologies will eventually be needed when pursuing a particular vision. Thinking about what CDS was called initially, it wasn’t a separate “thing”. It was embedded within the Common Data Model concept introduced in 2016. It took a year for this vision to evolve to a level where the actual data platform functionality operated by Microsoft was named Common Data Service and the earlier CDM term was dedicated to the idea of a shared schema across business apps from different vendors. It’s easy to see these should be 2 different things, but finding the right way to put them out there took a few iterations.

Another example where things are a bit further already when a the need for redefining the terminology arises is Customer Insights. Microsoft has been shouting a lot about the booming demand for their Customer Data Platform solution (CDP, a generic term like CRM). Recently they’ve had to reshuffle the Insights deck of cards to ensure the gameplay works smoothly, so a hierarchy like this has been introduced:

  • Customer Insights: the top level concept of Microsoft’s CDP
    • Audience Insights: the features that were initially called Customer Insights, now referred to merely as a “capability” of CI.
    • Engagement Insights: announced originally as an independent product called Product Insights, now in preview as another capability of CI

3. Shifting product boundaries

Microsoft today excels in understanding the importance of their technology stack. You could also call it the platform approach in this context, but the point remains the same. Their products rarely get developed in isolation these days, rather there is (at least seemingly) a big push for combining elements of existing services to create new products. The problem is, though, that this game of connecting the dots isn’t ever really over.

Survey feedback management was first brought into the Business Applications portfolio via acquiring an ISV product called Mojo Surveys that had been built on the XRM platform. After some rearchitecting and rebranding it was launched as Microsoft Voice of the Customer (VoC). The capabilities for the survey form design were quite lacking compared to the simplified UX in Microsoft Forms that had been developed internally on the Office 365 side of the house. Instead of retrofitting the form designer into VoC, MS decided to take CDS as the process and data management engine to give birth to a more structured feedback management tool, called Forms Pro. VoC was then deprecated and customers were asked to migrate to Forms Pro instead.

In this process the technical capability of feedback management had hopped over the fence from the Dynamics side to the Office side. This was somewhat problematic from a business perspective, as well as causing confusion between the non-Pro and Pro usage of Forms. So, Microsoft ended up doing a further reimagining of EFM and rebranded Forms Pro to Dynamics 365 Customer Voice, bringing it back to the BizApps side where it started from.

Returning to the previous example, before we had Dynamics 365 Customer Insights, the product names Microsoft used for referring to the same concept included “Cortana Intelligence Customer Insights” and “Azure Customer Insights”. The earlier Azure products that were offered in preview had to be scrapped and rebuilt as a Dynamics 365 product to finally see the GA milestone. Today it makes far more sense to have these type of packaged AI capabilities in the BizApps portfolio than in the Azure service catalog, but it wasn’t always obvious – especially back when Dynamics was just about CRM and ERP.

4. Marketing goals vs. market needs

Product marketing at Microsoft is in an endless pursuit of finding the best story that can sell customers a shiny new vision of what results they could achieve – if they choose the right technology from MS. Making a single purchase isn’t enough. You have to get the customers hooked on buying more from you, which leads to the invention of new things to sell. It’s easy to understand the incentives that lead to such actions, but they can sometimes end up irritating the customer who’s already made a purchase based on their own understanding of their needs.

When Microsoft decided in 2016 that it would no longer sell a product called CRM, you could argue that their vision for tearing down the traditional CRM and ERP silos was logically a goal worth pursuing. The side effect from this product marketing goal was that when Microsoft took away the name “CRM”, they didn’t give anything new to replace it with. Reluctantly the Customer Engagement name was introduced a bit later, only to be quietly discontinued.

The CRM systems that customers had deployed didn’t disappear anywhere of course. Companies offering professional services around them first struggled in migrating from Dynamics CRM consulting to Dynamics 365 CE consulting, and now they’re even more confused about what to call themselves.

Microsoft’s branding changes aren’t ever exactly applauded in the partner or customer space, since renaming CDS to Dataflex to Dataverse will always cause extra work for them and give little in return. Removing an entire category like CRM has a far bigger impact than changing A to B. Redefining concepts and their boundaries is of course a very powerful way to stir things up and generate motion in the markets. I can’t say that I personally have any regrets on moving on from CRM, yet it’s easy to understand why not everyone is cheering when someone comes and says “what you’re doing is no longer a thing – time to reimagine everything!”

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