Last week I “attended” Microsoft’s annual Build developer conference to hear the latest in what the tech giant has been working on. It’s a conference I always make a point of paying attention to, as you get a window into the real nitty gritty of Microsoft’s rich development ecosystem and how it is continuously seeking to enhance and improve its software offerings. For background, I recommend you see my coverage of Build 2017, 2018 (Day 1 and Day 2), and 2019.
What’s different this year is the event is being held entirely virtually, for the first time in the company’s history, due to large gathering restrictions around the COVID-19 pandemic. Microsoft always seizes the occasion of Build to unveil a whole new slew of features and updates to its software portfolio, and though this year’s event was held virtually, it had no shortage of new announcements. As they say, the show must go on. Today I wanted to shine a spotlight on a few of the new announcements that perked my ears up. Let’s take a look.
Microsoft Teams is now a full-blown platform
Of the slew of updates announced for Microsoft Teams, the company’s immensely popular chat-based collaboration tool, the ones that caught my eye the most revolved around the integration of the tool with Microsoft Power Platform. Power Platform, for the unfamiliar is Microsoft’s business application platform that enables customers to build no code/low-code bots, analyze data, automate processes, and more. It’s geared towards customers who may not have the developer firepower, or time, to perform these functions from scratch. This is big—by integrating these two tools, Teams is now essentially a full-blown platform.
So what do these integrations look like? Over the coming months, Microsoft revealed it is simplifying the creation and management of Power Virtual Agent chatbots within Teams. Soon, all users will have to do is select their desired bot and click the Add to Teams button. Additionally, the company says that single sign-on support is coming to its Power Virtual Agents—handy since users won’t have to reauthenticate when they initially utilize Teams. Users will also be able to integrate their custom Power Apps and automated workflows into Teams by clicking the Add to Teams button. The company also announced it is integrating Power Automate with Teams to provide enhanced workflow automation. This will include new triggers and actions that unlock “custom message extensions, automated @mentioning, and a customized bot experience.”
Power BI is also getting further integrated into teams—Power BI users will now be able to import and share reports (or specific charts from reports) into Teams, at the click of its new Share to Teams button in the Power BI portal. Additionally, when a chart is shared to a Teams conversation, it will now include a rich thumbnail preview, and an adaptive card that Microsoft says will enable users to take action on said chart.
Microsoft Graph, the company’s developer platform, will also be seeing some new features. The platform’s APIs for Teams now feature 24 new granular permissions for app data access authorization. Additionally, Microsoft says soon it will be launching new Graph APIs that enable users to create subscriptions for different event types, such as replies, reactions, channels, and new/edited/deleted messages, as well as APIs that make it easier to send app notifications to users across devices.
Scheduling improvements within Teams
Back in March, Microsoft previewed its new Teams Bookings app, which enables organizations to handle scheduling of multiple departments and staff in one unified place. As of Build, Bookings is now generally available. The really cool thing about this app is it can serve external parties as well as those within the organization—for example, it can be used to schedule telehealth appointments, customer service interactions, or job interviews.
For frontline workers’ scheduling, Teams features an app called Shifts. Microsoft announced the general availability of Graph APIs for Shifts, which it says will enable developers to integrate Shifts with their own preexisting workforce management systems. Another development is that Power Automate will now be able to draw info from Shifts to shape customized workflows and execute functions at scale. Microsoft says more Shifts enhancements are coming this summer, including the ability to auto-approve certain shift requests that don’t need to be run by a manager.
Teams app development and management
The company also announced it is releasing new Teams extensions for Visual Studio and Visual Studio Code, which it claims will empower developers by allowing them to build for Teams using the tools they already know. On top of that, these new extensions make it possible for developers to directly publish their apps to AppSource, or alternately, to their organization’s app catalogue.
Microsoft also touted Teams’ new app management capabilities within the Teams admin center. IT admins will be able to buy app licenses, approve line-of-business apps, and pre-install apps for users—all directly through the Teams admin center. Meanwhile, the new Teams Activity Feed API promises to simplify the transmission of app notifications to users across all their devices.
The Teams store has also been streamlined to provide a better user experience. Microsoft says the app search and tailored suggestions have been enhanced to provide the most relevant apps to the users’ needs. Additionally, new, customizable team templates will allow administrators to include certain apps within channels, amongst other functions.
Another big development announcement at the event was the unveiling of Microsoft’s new Project Reunion initiative. Microsoft calls Project Reunion an “evolution of the Windows developer platform” into something more agile, modern and open.
As it currently stands, there is problematic fragmentation between the Universal Windows Platform (UWP) and Windows API. Project Reunion seeks to fix this problem by delivering a unified platform that supports both the latest client platform creations developed the universal UWP, and all classic Win32 apps built with the Windows API. Microsoft says that in addition to unifying access to these two platforms, it will render them decoupled from the operating system. This, Windows says, will result in a common platform for new applications and help developers update and modernize their existing apps. Moving forward, we’ll have simply “Windows apps” instead of universal UWP apps and classic Win32 apps. I believe this is a great way to streamline Windows development, and I expect it will make Microsoft look more attractive to developers.
As improvement to apps is detached from the operating system, enterprises won’t have to upgrade operating systems to get access to many app features. I’m a bit mixed on that if it results in enterprises upgrading even more slowly to newer OS bits as improvements to security and utility come with those new bits.
Updates to Microsoft Edge
The new Edge is off to a screaming success and I cannot believe how quickly it came together and at high quality. I had been using Chrome for a decade and switched over on all my Windows, Android and iOS platforms. It’s not perfect yet but it could be and for enterprises juggling two browsers to deal with legacy web apps requiring Internet Explorer, it’s a no-brainer.
There were also several announcements pertaining to Microsoft’s Edge browser. The company announced a partnership with Pinterest and Edge’s Collections feature, which is used to store web content relevant to home improvement ideas, projects, etc. The just announced integration with Pinterest will help Edge users by offering suggestions from Pinterest on similar content to what they’ve already captured in Collections. For that matter, users will also be able to export their content from Collections into a Pinterest board. In addition to the Pinterest collaboration, Microsoft is also making it so Collections can export to Excel and Word (starting today) and OneNote (coming soon).
Microsoft also announced it is introducing what it says will be a quicker and more contextual way to perform searches from the sidebar. Basically, users will soon be able to highlight a word or phrase within the page they’re currently looking at, right click on it, and tell it to search in the sidebar—that way the user doesn’t have to navigate away from the original page they were on. In addition to that, the company says that its commercial customers with AAD accounts will soon be able to see results from their organization’s intranet within the sidebar search. Other new Edge features coming to commercial customers include the ability to sync on-premises while they’re transitioning to the cloud, as well as something they call Automatic Profile Switching which will prompt users to toggle over to their work profile if they click on something while using their personal profile that requires their work credentials.
Microsoft also announced some Edge updates geared towards developers. These include improvements to accessibility, inking, scrolling and localization for the Chromium open-source browser project. The company also announced it is making Webview 2.0 previews available for NET and UWP development and improving Progressive Web Apps (PWAs in preview to make them feel more like native applications.
All in all, I was impressed by what I witnessed at Microsoft Build 2020—the virtual format was of course different than what we’re all used to, but I didn’t find that it detracted from the experience. While not perfect, Microsoft did it better than anyone had done so far for a “digital-only” big tent event.
The integration of Teams and Power Platform, in my mind, was the biggest story out of the conference this year, as it turns Teams into essentially a full-blown platform. With the lack of developers globally, I think this combination could enable some very powerful capabilities.
Project Reunion is significant, and I think that decoupling the OS from the application layer will attract more developers to Windows because they will be able to get more done with less effort.
Lastly, I’m amazed by the progress Microsoft has been able to make on Edge in such a short time. The browser was only introduced a year ago, and it’s almost incomprehensible to me that Microsoft has worked this quickly. It’s now my default browser on all my devices, and I recommend that any enterprise wanting to pare down to a single browser for both legacy and modern web apps give it a strong look. There’s a lot to like in what Microsoft showcased at Build—I’m glad I tuned in.
Note: Moor Insights & Strategy writers and editors may have contributed to this article.