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Understanding Microsoft's grand vision for building the next generation of apps

What Microsoft Collaborative Apps are and why they matter: An explainer.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor on

Over the past couple of years, Microsoft has introduced a grab bag of new tools and technologies aimed at helping developers -- including those inside Microsoft -- build "the next generation of apps." Microsoft has something for every app builder from "citizen" non-pro devs to well-versed, expert devs. 

Furthermore, execs believe these kinds of apps, lots of them, are exactly what customers need now, especially in this hybrid-work era. But is there a big-picture strategy that ties everything together?

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We got a glimpse of what Microsoft was attempting to do from this Microsoft marketing slide from a couple of years ago:

Microsoft marketing slide of Collaborative Applications.
Microsoft

 And here's the newer, Microsoft Cloud-centric version:

Microsoft Cloud Collaborative Apps.
Microsoft

Microsoft has described a concept called Collaborative Apps in a variety of ways. Collaborative Apps, when Microsoft execs first used that term, seemed to be apps designed to be used inside Teams and acquired from the Teams app store.

Now, Microsoft execs are using Collaborative Apps much more broadly: They can be apps inside Teams or Teams components inside your apps. But there's even more. Given Microsoft's intent to more tightly tie its Microsoft 365 and Dynamics 365 franchises together, Collaborative Apps also applies to Dynamics 365. Collaborative Apps can be apps inside Dynamics or Dynamics components inside your apps.

How are devs and users supposed to make sense of this evolving Collaborative Apps vision? Ahead of the kickoff of the first annual Microsoft Power Platform Conference on Sept. 20, I had a chance to talk to Jeff Teper, Microsoft's newly minted president of Collaborative Apps & Platforms, and Charles Lamanna, corporate vice president of Business Apps and Platform.

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At the conference today, Teper's keynote is entitled Building Collaborative Apps with Microsoft 365 + Power Platform. Timed to coincide with the kickoff of the event, Microsoft announced a new Power Up Skilling Program to help individuals get into the low-code space via a three-month guided curriculum; cards (built on the Adaptive Card framework) for Power Apps; and co-authoring inside Power Apps for simultaneously editing apps in real time in an Office-like experience. The new Cards (coming "soon" in public preview) and co-authoring capability (coming next month in public preview) are yet more pieces of the Collaborative Apps puzzle.

Collaborative Apps: The elevator pitch  

A Collaborative App, at its simplest, is, "an application that helps people work together on a business process," Teper said. A business process can be anything from submitting a time sheet to populating a form (plus much more involved and advanced interactions).

Developers can use any tools they're comfortable with to write a Collaborative App. Low-code tools in the Power Platform family are great, as are Visual Studio, TypeScript, JavaScript and other pro-dev options. And they can connect to data sources from Microsoft and its partners and competitors thanks to the Microsoft Graph programming interface, the Dataverse common data service and Azure data. Microsoft Fluid Framework and Loop synchronization components, Adaptive Cards, custom-built Connectors and Azure Communication Services -- the chat and meeting capabilities that Microsoft uses in Teams -- are other optional pieces available to devs, as well. Collaborative Apps can be surfaced in Teams, Office, Dynamics, and custom line-of-business apps.

Power Platform, which is Microsoft's collection of low-code tools that aim to turn business users into developers, is at the heart of the evolving Collaborative Apps vision. (Microsoft officials are positioning Power Platform as key to its Microsoft Cloud vision and strategy as well.)

"We're not inventing our own development tool for Office or Microsoft 365. We're betting on the Power Platform," Teper said.

At the Microsoft Build conference earlier this year, officials announced the ability to create Loop components by updating Adaptive Cards. Adaptive Cards are an open card exchange format enabling developers to exchange UI content in a common and consistent way. Developers can turn Adaptive Cards into Loop components or create new Adaptive Card-based Loop components. These Adaptive Card-based Loop components can be surfaced using Editor and Microsoft's Context IQ AI capabilities

Today, Microsoft announced that Power Apps developers can create cards using Power Apps Designer and even take advantage of Power Fx integration. Devs can use Designer to create polls and surveys, for data gathering, and other kinds of more advanced apps.

"But it's not just about Power Platform inside of Office," Lamanna noted. "There's also Office inside of Power Platform."

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And that's where today's announcement of co-authoring inside of Power App Studio fits in. This capability is using the same underlying infrastructure that enables co-authoring and co-presence inside of things like Word and PowerPoint, he noted. And at Build earlier in the year, Microsoft took the wraps off Collaboration Controls in Power Apps, which allows developers to drag and drop Microsoft 365 collaboration features like Teams chats, meetings, files, and Tasks into custom apps built with Power Apps.

Microsoft is experimenting with these new app-building models itself, Lamanna said. Viva Sales, the first "role-based" Viva app that's designed to help salespeople capture data and integrate it with Teams chats, calls, and Outlook mails, is a marquee example of a Collaborative App, he said.

"We're walking the walk of what we tell customers," Teper added. "The pattern we'd say is use the data in Microsoft 365, use Office as a bit of a shell, but use Power Platform to construct the business processes. That's how we built Viva Sales."

Lamanna says Microsoft has been learning the best way to build an application inside of something like Teams. And "copy-pasting a browser-based app as an iframe in Teams," while possible, is not the best option. 

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More interesting things happen "when you take ... that big monolithic web app and deconstruct it into lots of bite-sized workflows and micro apps to Adaptive Cards." By piecing together apps this way, you make it so that "engagement goes through the roof," he said, "because that's how people are used to answering messages and answering emails."

Because all roads at Microsoft these days lead to the Microsoft Cloud, no definition would be complete without a bit of information on how the Cloud platform dovetails with the Collaborative Apps strategy and vision. Microsoft's contention is that by building atop the full Microsoft stack, devs and customers will get the built-in security and governance capabilities that come with it.

Teper's call to action: "Go build Collaborative apps with the Power Platform and, where it makes sense, integrate them with Microsoft 365Teams, Office, etc. And you'll get better apps faster that are easier to govern."

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