Computers are meant to make life easier, but the ability to actually create new functionality for them resides only with a very skilled few. Microsoft wants to make computers a bit more like automobiles—millions of people know how to operate a car, and owning one can change your life, even if comparatively few have any idea how to build an engine.
Onstage at Microsoft’s Ignite enterprise developer conference in Florida today, CEO Satya Nadella announced a host of new tools aimed at making it easier for anyone to develop apps.
Earlier this year, Microsoft unveiled the Power Platform, wrapping together a set of programs it has had for a few years that allow companies to wrangle their data into understandable visualizations, and build apps using that data and Microsoft’s technologies. The software updates are part of a growing number of enterprise services from Microsoft as it looks to differentiate its cloud-computing offerings from the likes of Amazon, Oracle, and Google’s burgeoning cloud business.
The Power Platform and its precedents have attracted all sorts of organizations, from major transit networks to Virgin Atlantic to charities like the American Red Cross, as well as smaller businesses that may not have been able to hire app developers in the past. Every company that sells enterprise software talks about how it can help businesses get work done more easily, but with the Power Platform, companies can actually change how they get their work done.
Take Samit Saini, for example. Saini was a security guard at Heathrow Airport for 13 years, where much of the administrative work he had to do was on paper. Being a bit of a digital tinkerer with a penchant for Excel, he found out about PowerApps, the part of Power Platform that allows anyone to build an app on their own, and tried to make digital versions of the paper forms he used. Heathrow’s IT department liked his work so much that they offered him a job. He and his colleagues have since built 17 apps for various functions around the airport. Saini didn’t need to learn a single line of code to build his apps.
Saini’s story will become increasingly common, Nadella told Quartz. “Sixty percent of the jobs in technology now are outside of what is considered the tech industry,” he said, citing a statistic uncovered by LinkedIn, which Microsoft also owns. “And that’s only going to grow.”
As more companies start to move more and more of their processes online, Nadella said he expects to see a shortage of around 1 million developers by 2030, creating the imperative to find ways for anyone who can use a computer to build apps. He likens what PowerApps can do for people to what Excel did for data. “Once Excel was introduced, a lot of people were able to build spreadsheets and become numerical and analytical,” Nadella said. “Think about all the white-collar-ish jobs that were created because of Excel, because people could then sort of do that type of work—we want the same thing to happen with low-code/no-code.”
PowerApps is part of a growing movement to make it easier for anyone to build apps and programs, without having to learn coding languages. As Nadella suggests, there’s already a dearth of developers, and companies like Microsoft are coming up with novel solutions to figure out how to solve development problems without them. With PowerApps, it’s kind of like building a PowerPoint presentation: You move items around to get your app to look how you want it, dropping in buttons, information, maps, or whatever else you need to show, much as you would build a presentation. You can create full-fledged apps that can run on multiple operating systems, without having to even look at a single line of code. You can connect up to many of the services already used by companies, including Slack, Dropbox, Salesforce, and the entire Microsoft suite of apps.
Microsoft has all sorts of templates for designs and use cases, much in the same way it does in PowerPoint. You can connect up to datasets you already have, import them into PowerApps, and have the system automatically build the app you want. Once it does all the difficult development work in the background, you can redesign it how you’d like. For really simple tasks, you could build an app in less than five minutes.
But in much the same way that Excel didn’t put accountants or finance departments out of business, Nadella thinks the status of developers won’t change within companies, even as more people are able to build apps. “Democratization improves the overall digital capability of an organization,” Nadella said. “If anything, we will have more professional developers, and all these citizen-developers. Both of those, in fact, will be what I think a company will have as they improve their digital capability.”
Among a massive number of updates to Microsoft’s various enterprise offerings, including Azure services, Cortana (the company’s virtual assistant), and Office365, Nadella unveiled new capabilities for Power Platform as well. Any Power user can now build their own bots for their site that businesses’ customers can talk to. “Power Virtual Agents, a low-code and no-code bot-building solution, enables anyone in an organization, regardless of technical ability, to create and deploy intelligent virtual agents,” the company said in a release. The bot software is in beta testing now, and will be generally available Dec. 1.
There are other updates to PowerApps too, such as users being able to include more of Microsoft’s AI capabilities in their apps. Power app-makers can now include algorithms that will let their app read handwritten text, detect languages, and gauge the sentiment of any text, such as social media posts or customer reviews. With these updates, developers don’t need to know how to create machine-learning algorithms to leverage them in their apps. And if these companies use Microsoft Teams, the company’s answer to Slack, they’ll soon be able to create apps that can live directly within it, or connect to channels within Teams.
Microsoft isn’t forgetting about traditional developers, either. Nadella said that GitHub, the code repository website Microsoft purchased in 2018, has over 40 million developers on the site, and that includes many of the top companies in the Fortune 500 list. At Ignite, Microsoft introduced Live Share, allowing developers to collaborate on a piece of code together in real-time, and said it was pulling the knowledge of GitHub into the Visual Studio coding tool. Now, developers will see suggestions for popular snippets of code on GitHub right in Visual Studio, so instead of having to rewrite something from scratch, they’ll be able to pull in code that already achieves what they’re trying to do.
Even though Nadella says it’s always been part of the Microsoft way to help its customers, recently it’s been opening itself up to potential competitors more than ever before. If a customer uses Amazon Web Services and Office365, Nadella wants to make sure everything works together, because that’s the reality of how businesses buy software. Not everything happens at once. “It’s clearly a different way of partnering, but it all centers around our customers,” Nadella said. “Things become very clear on what you need to do to succeed, if you listen to your customers, and that’s what we have done.”
“I call them the new Microsoft,” said Chad Brisendine, the chief information officer at St. Luke’s University Health Network. He’s been a CIO for 15 years, but feels that over the past couple years Microsoft has been providing “a different level of partnership and engagement, bringing solutions, and being better advocates for the tech that they have.” His team has built 20 PowerApps already, taking requests from departments across the network to build tools specific for their needs. One that his team built takes archaic faxed-in prescription requests and pulls them into the pharmacy’s computer database. By running on Azure, Microsoft’s cloud, his team has been able to help out in new ways they wouldn’t have had time for in the past: “If you’re spending time patching servers, that time could be spending analyzing information,” Brisendine said.
The American Red Cross, which is aiding in the relief efforts for the wildfires currently raging in California, increasingly relies on the systems PowerApps allows it to create. “Our staff and volunteers have been instrumental in building apps to support relief efforts after a disaster strikes,” L.V. Spencer, a volunteer logistics lead, told Quartz over email. “We recently built an app to track the processing of our supply requisition during a disaster relief operation. As you can imagine, it used to take us a lot of time to track these requisitions using spreadsheet. During a disaster it is critical that we have the right supplies, the right amount, at the right location and at the right time.”
As every organization begins to realize how apps can help their company, from large multinationals down to the corner bakery, they’re going to need to be able to find people to build them. And when more people can build something as easily as they can put together a slide deck, perhaps the balance of technological power will start to shift away from Silicon Valley to the rest of the world.
Nadella wants Microsoft to lead that charge: “I feel that, as a tech company…our core sense of purpose is how do we take this technology and then democratize it, and its access, so that others can reap the benefits of technology.”