570 – Automation for all

clip_image002Before The Event, if you were an IT professional in the Microsoft ecosystem for any amount of time, you may have marked your calendar by conferences you were going to attend – PDC, WPC, maybe TechEd? The big ones always happened in the US, but some were followed up with regional replays.

All were replaced in time with rebranded but otherwise similarly targeted variants:

  • Build (in the spring, initially in SFO to appeal to the cool cats writing apps, then moved to Seattle with a focus on cloud),
  • Inspire (in the summer, with thousands of partners, latterly held in Las Vegas) and
  • Ignite (in the autumn, home to lots of IT pros, often in Orlando).

2020 saw a fast move to hosting everything digitally and for the most part got away with it. 2021 was always going to be different, and the first big do of the year took place this past week – a spring Ignite. When you don’t need to book a conference centre 12 months in advance and get thousands of people to fly in to attend, why not do some of the big events more often or a different time of year?

For a summary of what was being announced at Ignite 2021, check out the excellent Ignite Book of News.

Charles Lamanna’s keynote on Power Platform highlighted some news around Power Automate – one of the key components of the Power Platform and formerly known as Microsoft Flow, Power Automate began as an online service that could make workflows to stitch together actions that happened across multiple online applications –a new booking alert email to a hotel mailbox could add an appointment to a Google Calendar and send a notification to someone on Microsoft Teams, and so on.

Just announced is that the fairly new Power Automate Desktop will be included in Windows 10 and is free to download and use now.

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This tool brings automation concepts right down to the desktop, allowing any end user to create flows that span multiple apps and services; it’s not unlike an advanced Macro Recorder, where the user can perform a task that is regularly repeated, and the software will keep track of the steps they’re making.

With PAD, however, it’s more than just repetition – they can go back and inject data into those steps, like take the email addresses from column B of this spreadsheet and send a specific email to each one, with logic determining what should be different for each message (so a lot more granular than a simple mail merge).

clip_image006As well as some pretty advanced integration into all kinds of apps on Windows and services on the web, there are lots of tools to guide the flow of logic; while it might seem a bit scary to some, anyone who’s ever done some basic programming will be able to quickly figure out how to describe the logic without needing to break out a line of code.

This capability has come about through Microsoft acquiring Robotic Process Automation specialist company Softomotive in early 2020.

The impact of RPA is explored when looking at how this technology could remove boring, repetitive tasks thus freeing up clever and creative people to do something better with their time and attention. On one hand, automating processes could be a threat as we’ll need fewer people to do the same things, but a more optimistic view is that it will increase productivity and satisfaction. If you have 17 minutes free, then check out a great TEDx talk on “White Collar Robots”.

There’s a great demo of Power Automate technology being used in real-world scenarios, on Microsoft Mechanics. See more videos from the makers on Microsoft Mechanics – YouTube

567 – Power Teams Apps

clip_image002The Power Platform – an umbrella term that encompasses a load of technology most often associated with business applications like Microsoft Dynamics – has some capabilities that are being increasingly surfaced to more end users, and which could see new ways of interacting with data and functionality that have traditionally been siloed in monolithic back-end applications.

The artist formerly known as Common Data Service was given a jazzy new name at Inspire 2020, before a sudden realisation that somebody else already owned that trademark, whereupon it was swiftly rebranded Dataverse. In essence, this makes it easy to provide access to a centralised, well-managed, secure data store for pretty much any kind of data, accessible to pretty much any type of app.

If you used Power Apps and Dataverse to build line-of-business applications, accessible via browser or mobile clients, there are licensing requirements you’d need to fulfil – but if you want to make a more simplified application that uses Teams as its front-end, then you could use Dataverse for Teams (briefly known as Project Oakdale, using Power Apps under the covers). Licensing for Dataverse for Teams is included in many Microsoft 365 subscriptions – for more details on licensing and what some of the limitations of its use are compared to a full-blown Dataverse environment, see here.

clip_image004As discussed in last week’s ToW, there is already a Viva Insights Teams app available and there will be more coming soon – in fact, there’s a dogfood Viva Connections app already, which shows the MSW homepage within Teams, under the app name “Microsoft”. If you’re in the “Microsoft” app and click again on its logo, a shortcut menu of supposedly commonly-accessed information services appears.

Thankfully, when you need to perform your weekly check on which policies have been updated – or which ones you may have breached this time – they’re only a couple of clicks away.

clip_image006There are hundreds of apps written for Teams – you can browse and search within the Teams client, or take a look on AppSource from a browser.

clip_image008It’s also possible to pin your favourite apps to the Teams sidebar, either by opening from the Apps function and then right-click the icon when it shows underneath the others on your side bar, or by simply dragging the icon to be higher on the bar – the assumption being that if you want to move that icon up the list, you’re probably looking to Pin it for the future.

clip_image010There are a couple of new “template” apps that have been released by Microsoft, using Dataverse for Teams, and customisable using the simplified Power Apps editor within.

The Bulletin and Milestones apps are available now.

559 – Teams steams ahead

clip_image002In the same week that Salesforce announced its intent to splurge a load of cash on buying Slack, Microsoft’s Teams team put out a lengthy  blog post outlining a load of new and updated features that are clip_image003shortly coming to the Teams user experience. Some have been talked about before and are now already available or will roll out soon (you can always prod Teams to check for updates by clicking on your profile icon in the top right and choosing Check for updates – any available updates should be downloaded and installed in the background).

clip_image005One new feature is a supposedly AI-powered (isn’t everything that’s vaguely smart these days?) noise suppression feature – useful if you’re on Teams calls and have to share your environment with noisy people/animals etc. Configure your own noise suppression settings within the Devices options, by clicking on Settings under your profile at the top right.

There are numerous new calling features coming, which will help in managing real (PSTN) phone calls and VoIP calls, as well as a clip_image007load of new partner devices that can be plugged into your PC to give you a phone on your desk, if you like that sort of thing.

Read more about the new devices here.

There are also some useful updates to bring other applications into Teams meetings, like allowing you to set up Polls in advance (using Microsoft Forms, configured within the Teams app with an easy-to-use wizard), and using Power Apps and other elements of the Power Platform, it’s never been easier to roll your own apps for including in Teams.

There’s a $45K prize fund available for the best apps that are built and submitted by February 2021, so if you have ideas, better get cracking…