What to make of Power Platform?

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The keynote for the Power Platform conference at the MGM Grand, Las Vegas

What to make of Power Platform?

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Remember, this is not the Microsoft conference; it is a conference devoted to a single Microsoft product line. The phrase used to run, "Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM," but that's not the case anymore. Replace IBM with Microsoft, and you have a phrase that stands up to some scrutiny.

We could only spend a little time at this year’s Microsoft Power Platform conference in Vegas, but even a small amount of time there leaves a big impression.

As analysts, we know just how big Microsoft is and how much it dominates our industry, but the physical manifestation of a keynote filling every single seat and more (standing room only) at the vast MGM Arena brings that reality home. Remember, this is not the Microsoft conference; it is a conference devoted to a single Microsoft product line. The phrase used to run, “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM,” but that’s not the case anymore. Replace IBM with Microsoft, and you have a catchphrase that stands up to some scrutiny.

This year, the event’s focus was generative AI and the launch of Copilot options across the Power Platform ecosystem. In 2023, it seems that every enterprise software announcement revolves around Generative AI, which in an incredibly short time has become an expectation and, as a result, hardly news. But beneath the hype and hoopla, there is some substance and signs of significant change to come. But it’s essential to understand the history of automation at Microsoft to grasp the full impact of what is happening.

Long story short, until now, process automation was never Microsoft’s strong point. Multiple products and multiple acquisitions have played a part in its evolution. However, it’s still fair to say that ten years ago, if you wanted to automate business processes with Microsoft, you went to one of Microsoft’s partners, typically Nintex or K2 (now part and parcel of the same company). Many still do, but what Microsoft lacks in highly complex business process management capabilities today, it more than makes up for with broader automation tools. And that takes us back to the sheer scale of Microsoft; its products are focused on supporting other products in its vast portfolio. Yet, in large enterprises, Microsoft is only one (though crucial) element in broader architectures. So, a thriving market remains to tie non-Microsoft elements together and build effective workflows.

Though some still see this as Microsoft’s Achilles heel, an event such as this one in Vegas is confirmation that it may instead be a strength as Microsoft is more than happy to leave some complex integration to third-party apps and silos along with the associated process management challenges to its partner ecosystem. The introduction of Generative AI allows customers to extend their opportunities for rich automation by building the correct prompts. This week’s Copilot announcements further strengthen that argument because its products and customer base are more than enough for Microsoft and its partner ecosystem to contend with (5.2 million active users across 126,000 organizations).

So that is a perhaps long-winded way to provide context for what the announcements made at this event mean practically, beyond the noisy hype of ‘More GenAI.’ So, let’s break down the announcements: Copilot is popping up everywhere, including Power Pages, to enable the building of more data-centric websites. It is also within the new Power Automate flow designer, but maybe most importantly, Copilot is now in Managed Environments.’We are calling this one out in particular because it aims to address many of the concerns of using generative AI tools for application development (a subject that we’ve been discussing for a while). This provides the tools to restrict and control a developer’s working environment (as the name suggests). The danger of citizen developers is that, with perhaps good intentions, they can run riot. But this announcement quietly reigns in their ability to do that, restricting them to curated sources and ensuring they don’t get access to any nonrelevant or sensitive locations. In addition, it also ensures that newly developed applications (through Copilot) are complete with notes and a description to ensure they meet security and compliance requirements. In summary, Managed Environments impose and automate (rightly so) ALM (application lifecycle management) rules for any new application.

The overall goal of these announcements and ongoing changes to the Power Platform are both to simplify development (low and no code), automate development as much as possible, and ensure compliance and security. We remain unconvinced that the future of development lies in the hands of ‘Citizen Developers’, but simplifying and automating the work of development (particularly for professional developers) is a good thing and has been happening incrementally for decades. Copilot boosts this trajectory, and it’s good to see that Microsoft is taking the risks of democratizing application development seriously.

As always, the proof is in the pudding. The coming year will tell us how successful these new features are and how effective and accurate Copilot is. But with such a vast customer base, we shouldn’t have to wait too long to find out.

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