Office Excel: Why it's Microsoft's not-so-secret weapon in no-code app development

Microsoft might not have a mobile platform but it has a few tricks up its sleeve to win in low-code app creation.

No coding skills? An AI low-code platform will guide you through the app creation process

Low-code, no-code or visual-based coding is getting more attention these days. 

Amazon Web Services (AWS) in June launched a beta of Honeycode. Google in January snapped up low-code outfit AppSheet and killed off AppMaker for Workspace, formerly G Suite, also beefing up Google Cloud with the Business Application Platform in September

Salesforce has its Lightning platform, while Oracle has Application Express (APEX), and there are more offerings from Appian, Zoho, ServiceNow and others vying for a slice of businesses' undergoing digital transformation.

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Enter low-code or no-code. The promise of low- and no-code platforms is that business users can create mobile and web apps by pulling data from spreadsheets or databases to help their colleagues access data where and when they need it – in a browser or a mobile device – almost without requiring professional developers. 

Honeycode is a AWS's no-code answer to building mobile and web apps. AWS nodded to VisiCalc, a 1970s predecessor to Excel for the Apple II distributed on a 5.25-inch disk, in its blogpost for Honeycode

The spreadsheet concept is still relevant today but sharing needs and the volume of data have changed. Low-code promises a half-way point between either sticking with a complex spreadsheet or paying a developer, if you could find one, to turn it into an app.

The other big targets for low-code are business processes that might have depended on email or spreadsheets but didn't get the automation attention they needed. Smartphones, mobile apps and web apps have helped change that.  

Microsoft has also been pushing hard with its Power Platform in low-code/no-code development. The platform today consists of Power Apps, Power Virtual Agent, Power BI (business intelligence), and Power Automate. 

It launched Power Apps in 2016 with SharePoint integrations and the Common Data Service – a vaguely named service for using customers' data stored in Dynamics 365 CRM and ERP systems to build and extend applications. More recently, it has focused Power Apps on Microsoft Teams.

But why are low-code platforms now attracting investments from big tech, customers and startups? 

Excel macros and Microsoft's Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) have for decades helped business folk automate processes. But right now low-code platforms can offer more to enterprises and alleviate the need for professional developers who are in short supply, says Charles Lamanna, corporate vice president of Microsoft's low-code application platform.

"There aren't enough developers," Lamanna tells ZDNet in an interview. "We've got a million developer shortfall over the next decade: 86% of our customers say they can't hire developers with technical talent at the rate they want."

Lamanna compares the growing importance of the Power Platform to the role VBA played for Office customizations and extensibility back in the 1990s. 

Power Platform is much needed for Microsoft too, if it's the modern replacement for VBA. Today VBA is rated by developers as an utterly horrid programming language. In Stack Overflow's 2020 developer survey, VBA was the 'most-dreaded' language, ahead of Objective-C, Perl, Assembly, C, PHP, Ruby, C++, Java and R.

But the VBA legacy, combined with Azure, Microsoft 365, Dynamics 365, and hit apps like Teams, has helped make the Power Platform one of the core pillars of Microsoft's cloud strategy.   

"Extensibility of Office is Power Platform these days. It's almost like the VBA for Office is increasingly becoming Power Platform, and you can see that," he says . 

Dynamics 365 "just runs" on top of Power Platform, while Dynamics 365 Customer Engagement is "just a Power app", according to Lamanna. Meanwhile, Power Platform is the key way to add low-code extensibility to Azure.

Microsoft noted at its Q1 FY 2021 earnings update in October that Power Platform now has more than 10 million monthly active users (MAUs) in more than 500,000 organizations. 

That's not quite as much Teams' 115 million MAUs in a post-COVID world, but Power Platform users are a smaller crowd than the millions who today need chat and video collaboration for remote work. Top Power Platform customers include IKEA Sweden, Toyota Motor North America, and PayPal.

There is no Windows Phone mobile platform today, but Microsoft knows the importance of visualizing data and bringing data that's probably living inside an Office Excel spreadsheet, ERP or CRM systems to a mobile device or web browser. But old Excel is the standout, according to Lamanna.    

"I'd say Excel is the number one application platform in the world by far, by user count and the number of business processes that depend on it," he says . 

"But if I want to do better slicing and dicing to understand my reports, my data, Power BI is going to be a great tool for that. In fact, the number one data source for Power BI is Excel. 

"People are still using Excel where the data lives, but they want to get access to the advanced reporting, visualization and dashboards out of Power BI inside the browser."

Lamanna says there are many Excel macros in use, "but those aren't things you're going to use to deliver a mobile experience". 

"A spreadsheet or table isn't a natural mobile experience. A huge proportion of our customers today that use Power Platform are building mobile experiences, where today there is just no experience."

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However, Lamanna doesn't want to annoy development teams out there who represent the "code-first approach".  

"It's not just about Power Platform on its own. It's Power Platform plus other productivity tools. It's not either or," he says.  

"It's not like you go with Python or you go with Power Apps. Use the right tool for the job; that's what developers have been doing forever. 

"You can use GitHub, you can use Azure, you use Kubernetes hosted anywhere, you can use Python, host it anywhere. Wire it up to your Power Apps or wire it up to your Power Automate or Power BI. And that's totally OK. We call this the modern application development stack."

Plus, according to Lamanna, it's just more efficient and practical to use a low-code product than coding up your own software, depending on the app the customer is after. Python, for example, is one of the most popular programming languages, but it's not so great for web apps or mobile apps. However, it is favored for backend services.  

"If you are a Python developer, and you want to go to build 10 forms to take data in from users, why spend that amount of time building it with code? You could build that with Power Apps literally in five minutes. So build those forms in Power Apps and then wire it up to your Python in the back."