Now Microsoft Teams is an app platform with its own built-in database

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright July 21, 2020
Microsoft 365 news at the vendor's Inspire partner event today includes Dataflex, a low-code database for building Teams apps that helps level the playing field with Slack

Microsoft Dataflex table detail
(via Microsoft)

Two weeks ago, Microsoft outclassed video meetings rival Zoom with a raft of enhancements to the video meetings in its Teams collaboration tool. Today at the opening of its Microsoft Inspire virtual event for partners, the company struck back against messaging rival Slack, upgrading the low-code automation capabilities of Teams with the launch of a built-in database called Microsoft Dataflex.

There's plenty more news today about Teams and other elements of Microsoft 365 which we'll come to in a moment, but Dataflex and related announcements are worth dwelling on briefly, especially in the context of Inspire. The rapid expansion of remote working in recent months has seen a surge of adoption of Teams, among other digital teamwork solutions. But as businesses settle into distributed teamwork, it quickly becomes obvious that there's a lot more to it than video meetings and chat messages.

All the visual cues and side conversations in the office that kept everyone up-to-date with what's going on suddenly have to be replaced with automated workflows and information sharing when everyone's working remotely. Now that Microsoft is heavily pushing Teams as the de-facto platform for digital teamwork, a huge opportunity is sprouting up for the partner ecosystem to come in and build those new digital workflows.

Dataflex, available in public preview from next month, brings into Teams all of the resources of the Common Data Service, the data and governance framework at the heart of the Microsoft Power Platform that brings together data from across the Microsoft landscape of Office, Dynamics and Azure. Customers and partners are already familiar with building apps and automations atop the CDS, which today is renamed as Microsoft Dataflex Pro. Now they'll be able to do the same natively within Teams, using Dataflex as a low-code tool to create custom data tables in Teams to store and manage their business data, fully connected into the underlying Power Platform.

Dataflex handles a range of data types including relational data, images and files, making all of them available to be incorporated into custom apps, intelligent chatbots and workflow automations in Teams, without the user having to handle any of the back-end complexity. Users can even add AI capabilities such as category classification, key phrase extraction or predictive analysis to their Team apps, or access external data sources through the medium of the Power Platform.

Related announcements today include a new Power BI app for Teams which streamlines access to Power BI reports in Teams, and integration of the recently launched Microsoft Lists into Teams, both due to be available next month. Lists is a task manager with a spreadsheet-like core and comes with a number of starter templates for uses such as tracking issues, assets, routines, contacts and inventory. Lists can be included in Teams as a tab or can attach Teams conversations.

Third-party apps into Teams meetings and more

Another notable announcement today is that developers can now integrate apps and services directly into Teams meetings, for example to provide agenda functions or display related content or notifications during the meeting. For the first time this gives third-party developers the ability to 'juice up' the Teams video meeting experience with add-on capabilities. New third-party apps can be integrated as a new tab or as a side panel and users can opt to add them as a button to the meeting controls bar.

To help manage Teams meetings in larger organizations, particularly those that also operate meeting rooms or devices, the Teams Admin Center has new capabilities for deploying and managing a fleet of devices. Organizations can manage their own Teams infrastructure, use a third-party service, or turn to Microsoft Teams Rooms Premium, a cloud-based managed service operated by Microsoft experts.

Security is a second big theme of today's Microsoft 365 announcements, including new protections for endpoint data loss prevention and enhanced capabilities for managing insider threats and detecting code of conduct policy violations.

Further announcements for firstline workers — those who deliver services to customers, often on their feet rather than at a desk — include the availability of the Time Clock app, new shift scheduling capabilities, availability of Teams on RealWear devices, and the launch of a publc preview of Microsoft Teams Walkie Talkie, a push-to-talk experience that runs on Android devices from selected partners. Yammer Communities is also now available in Teams on mobile, while Yammer itself has had a user experience refresh.

Targeting commercial and education customers, Microsoft unveiled a public preview of Universal Print, which lets people print to nearby printers without having to install specific drivers.

Finally, in a move that brought to mind Slack's recent acquisition of company directory vendor Rimeto, the Microsoft Graph that tracks participants and their relationships in Microsoft 365 can now add attributes from Azure Active Directory, such as alias, employee ID, or a custom property — not as comprehensive as the information collected by Rimeto, but a step in that direction.

My take

One of Slack's strongest suits in comparison to Microsoft Teams has been its workflow automation capabilities, whether using its own native low-code tools or third-party add-ons. Today's launch of Dataflex substantially levels the playing field in Microsoft's favor, bringing powerful new low-code capabilities right into Teams. Combined with the new developer tools for building Teams apps launched at last month's Build conference, the platform now has a comprehensive set of app-building tools.

This fills in an important missing piece from Microsoft's digital teamwork offering. In diginomica's model of a collaborative canvas for enterprise digital teamwork, we map four core teamwork patterns — messaging, content, functional applications and workflow. The new low-code capabilities — not only Dataflex but also Lists — significantly strengthens the workflow element.

As such, today's news will be welcomed by partners and customers. At the same time, its appeal will be strongest to those who already have a Microsoft-centric IT estate. This is classic Microsoft behavior and provides an excellent defensive play against Slack in Microsoft's own accounts. But Slack still has the edge when it comes to workflows that run across multiple best-of-breed applications — a focus that it is doubling down on since the launch of Connect, its shared channels offering for multiple organizations.

Still, today's announcements reinforce the message that Microsoft is serious about its digital teamwork play. The vendor has clearly put a huge amount of thought and investment into how to deepen the capabilities of Teams. That gives plenty for its adversaries to think about, while offering customers a robust and flexible platform for evolving their own digital teamwork strategies.

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