Microsoft's new service makes app developers out of everyday employees

PowerApps lets anyone build a cross-platform mobile application

Work is growing increasingly mobile thanks to smartphones, but companies can have a hard time coping with demand for apps that let their workers take corporate data on the go. Mobile developers are expensive, and getting new applications tested and then pushed out to users can be a time-consuming process. 

Microsoft just unveiled a new beta service on Monday that's supposed to help ease that tension by allowing anyone to build an app -- no software development experience required. PowerApps combines a cloud application backend with easy-to-use tools that make creating a mobile app a drag-and-drop affair. 

PowerApps applications can pull in information from a variety of data sources including Office 365, Dynamics, Google Drive, Workday and other services. Developers can also build connections for PowerApps in their own services if there isn’t a connector already available. 

Once the data connection is set up, users can then start building an application interface from one of Microsoft’s pre-built templates, or plug key data into PowerApps and let the service suggest the right designs for their purposes. Those people who have a strong idea for what they want their app to look like can create it from scratch. 

Once users have built the apps  they want, they can then use Microsoft's service to share their newly created tools with coworkers who have the PowerApps application installed on their smartphones. 

The system is currently limited to building software that runs inside the PowerApps app on mobile devices, however, so employees won’t be able to push their creations to the iOS App Store or Google Play Store. Microsoft Corporate Vice President Bill Staples said during a press briefing that Microsoft will consider feedback from its customers when determining if the company should make it possible to create standalone applications using PowerApps. 

Right now, PowerApps is available in a limited public beta: anyone can sign up for an invitation, but Microsoft has the final say over who gets to try PowerApps right now. 

Users will be able to get their feet wet with PowerApps for free, and can use the service to create unlimited apps that integrate with up to two cloud data providers. The paid Standard tier allows unlimited cloud data integrations and an Enterprise tier lets users build apps that take advantage of data stored on-premises.

Microsoft hasn’t revealed an exact price for the two tiers, but Staples said that it will be sold on a per-seat basis, and Microsoft wouldn't require companies to pay for the cloud infrastructure running their applications. 

Another interesting thing about PowerApps is that it’s a direct competitor to one of the companies in Microsoft’s venture capital portfolio. SkyGiraffe is a Silicon Valley-based startup that offers very similar tools, and has been backed by Microsoft Ventures. While SkyGiraffe and Microsoft have been connected for several years, this new product doesn't have direct ties to the startup. 

This new service is another part of Microsoft’s push to let rank-and-file employees work together spontaneously without the help (or meddling, depending on your perspective) of IT and management. Earlier this year, the company released Office 2016, a major release of its productivity suite focused on helping employees work together. 

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Blair Hanley Frank

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