With two major Microsoft events recently taking place back to back over the last fortnight – Microsoft Inspire & the Business Applications Summit – there is, understandably, a plethora of major new announcements that concern those of us who are working in the Business Applications space today. The critical announcement from my perspective is the October 2018 Business Application Release Notes, which gives us all a nice and early look at what is going to be released soon for Dynamics 365, Microsoft Flow, PowerApps, Power BI and other related services. Unlike previous Spring or Fall releases, the sheer breadth of different features that now sit within the Business Applications space makes it all the more important to consider any new announcement carefully and to ensure that they are adequately factored into any architectural decisions in months ahead. If you are having trouble wading through all 239 pages of the document, then I have been through the notes and picked out what I feel are most relevant highlights from a Dynamics CRM/Dynamics 365 Customer Engagement (D365CE) perspective and their potential impact or applicability to business scenarios.

SharePoint Integration with Portals

This is a biggie and a feature that no doubt many portal administrators have been clamouring for, with the only other option being a complicated SDK solution or a third-party vendor approach. Document management directly within CRM/D365CE has always been a sketchy idea at best when you consider the database size limitations of the application and the cost for additional database storage. That’s why SharePoint has always represented the optimal choice for storing any documents related to a record, facilitating a much more inexpensive route and affording opportunities to take advantage of the vast array of SharePoint features. When you start adding portals into the mix – for example, to enable customers to upload documents relating to a loan application – the whole thing currently falls flat on its face, as documents (to the best of my knowledge) can only be uploaded and stored directly within CRM/D365CE. With the removal of this feature, a significant adoption barrier for CRM Portals will be eliminated, and I am pleased to also see an obligatory Power BI reference included as part of this announcement šŸ™‚

In addition, we are providing the ability to embed Power BI charts within a portal, allowing users to benefit from the interactive visualizations of Power BI.

Portal Configuration Migration

Another process that can regularly feel disjointed and laborious are the steps involved in deploying Portal changes from Dev -> UAT/Test -> Production environments, with no straightforward means of packaging up changes via a Solution or similar for easy transportation. This torment promises to change as part of the release in October, thanks to the following:

To reduce the time and effort required to manage portal configuration across environments, we are publishing schema for configuration migration that works with the Configuration Migration SDK tool.

If you are not aware of the Configuration Migration tool, then you owe it to yourself to find out more about what it can accomplish, as I am sure it will take a lot of headache out of everyday business settings, product catalogue or other non-solution customisation activity that you may be carrying out in multiple environments. The neat thing about this particular announcement is that an existing, well-established tool can be used to achieve these new requirements, as opposed to an entirely new, unfamiliar mechanism. Integration with the current Configuration Migration tool will surely help in adopting this solution more quickly and enable deployment profiles to be put together that contain nearly all required configuration data for migration.

Portal Access Restrictions

In Portal terms, this is a relatively minor one, but a welcome addition nonetheless. When testing and developing any software application, it is always prudent to restrict access to only the users or organisations who require access to it. This option has not been available to Portals to date, but no longer thanks to the following announcement:

This feature would allow administrators to define a list of IP addresses that are allowed to access your portal. The allow list can include individual IP addresses or a range of IP addresses defined by a subnet mask. When a request to the portal is generated from any user, their IP address is evaluated against the allow list. If the IP address is not in the list, the portal replies with an HTTP 403 status code

The capabilities exposed here demonstrate a lot of parity with Azure Web Apps, which is, I understand, what is used to host portals. I would hope that we can see the exposure of more Azure Web App configuration features for portal administrators in the years ahead.

Multi-resource Scheduling

There has been a real drive in getting the Resource Scheduling experience within D365CE looking as visually optimal and feature-rich as possible in recent years. There is a specific reason to explain this – the introduction of Project Service Automation and Field Service capability requires this as an almost mandatory pre-requisite. There is a wide array of new features relating to resource scheduling as part of this update, but the announcement that caught my eye, in particular, was the ability to group related resources on the Resource Scheduler, as predefined “crews”. This new feature is hugely welcome for many reasons:

  • Different types of jobs/work may require resources with a specific set of skills in combination to complete.
  • It may be prudent to group specific resources if, for example, previous experience tells you that they work well together.
  • Location may be a factor as part of all this, meaning that by scheduling a “crew” of resources together within the same locale, you can reduce the unnecessary effort involved in travelling and ensure your resources are utilising their time more effectively.

The release notes give us a teaser of how this will look in practice, and I am eager to see how this works in practice:

Leave and absence management in Dynamics 365 Talent

I have been watching with casual, distant interest how the Dynamics 365 Talent product has been developing since its release, billed as one of the first applications built on top of the new Unified Interface/Common Data Service experience. I have noted its primary utility to date has been more towards the Human Resources hiring and onboarding process, with a significant feature gap that other HR systems on the market today would more than happily fill, by providing central hubs for policy documents, managing personal information and leave requests. I think there may be a recognition of this fact within Microsoft, which explains the range of new features contained within Dynamics 365 Talent as part of the October 2018 release. The new feature that best epitomises the applications maturity is the ability to manage leaves and absences, noted as follows:

Organizations can configure rules and policies related to their leave and absence plans. They can choose how employees accrue their time off, whether itā€™s by years of service or by hours worked. They also can configure when this time off can be taken and if certain types of time off must be taken before others. If they allow employees to get a pay-out of their time off, this can be configured as well.

Managers can see an all-up calendar view of their team members’ time off as well as company holidays and closures. This view shows them where they may have overlap as well as time-off trends for their team and enables them to drill down to gain a better understanding of an individual’s time off.

This immediately places the system as a possible challenger to other HR systems and represents a natural, and much needed, coming-of-age development for the system. I would undoubtedly say that Dynamics 365 Talent is starting to become something that warrants much closer attention in future.

Develop Microsoft Flows Using Visio

Microsoft Flow is great. This fact should be self-evident to regular followers of the blog. As a regularly developing, relatively young product, though, it is understandable that some aspects of it require further work. An excellent example of this is the ability to manage the deployment of Flows between different environments or stages. While Flows big brother, Microsoft Logic Apps, has this pretty well covered, the ability to deploy development or concepts Flows repeatedly often ends up being a case of manually creating each Flow again from scratch, which isn’t exactly fun.

The October release promises to change this with the introduction of a specific piece of integration with Microsoft Visio:

Microsoft Visio enables enterprises to capture their business processes using its rich modeling capabilities. Anyone who creates flowcharts or SharePoint workflows can now use Visio to design Microsoft Flow workflows. You can use Visio’s sharing and commenting capabilities to collaborate with multiple stakeholders and arrive at a complete workflow in little time. As requested here, you can publish the workflow to Microsoft Flow, then supply parameters to activate it.

This feature will be available to Visio Online Plan 2 subscription users. Office Insiders can expect early access in July 2018. In the future, you’ll also be able to export existing Flows and modify them in Visio.

Now, it’s worth noting, in particular, the requirement for Visio Online Plan 2 to accommodate this neat piece of functionality. But, assuming this is not an issue for your organisation, the potential here to define Flows locally, share them quickly for approval, and deploy themĀ en masse is enormous, bringing a much-needed degree of automation to a product that currently does not support this. I’m looking forward to getting my hands on this in due course.

Custom Fonts in Power BI

Continuing the theme of obligatory Power BI references, my final pick has to be the introduction of Custom Fonts into Power BI, which will be in Public Preview as part of October’s release:

Corporate themes often include specific fonts that are distributed and used throughout the company. You can use those fonts in your Power BI reports.

For any font property, Power BI Desktop will show a complete list of all the fonts installed on your computer. You can choose from these to use in your report. When distributing the report, anyone with the font installed will see it reflected in the report. If the end user doesn’t have it installed, it falls back to the default font.

For those who have particular branding requirements that require accommodation within their Power BI Reports, this new feature completes the puzzle and takes you an additional step further in transforming your reports so that they are almost unrecognisable from a default Power BI Report. Hopefully, the preview period for this new feature will be relatively short and then rolled out as part of general availability.

Conclusions or Wot I Think

The list above is just a flavour of my “choice cuts” of the most exciting features that will be in our hands within the next few months, and I really would urge you to read through the entire document if you have even just a little passing interest in any of the technologies included in these release notes. As you can tell, my list is ever so skewered towards Portals out of everything else. This is for a good reason – ever since Microsoft’s acquisition of ADXStudio a few years back, we have seen some progress in the development of CRM Portals from Microsoft, mainly in the context of integrating the product more tightly for Online users. In my view, this has been the only significant effort we have seen in taking the product forward, with a relatively extensive list of backlog feature requests that looked to have been consigned to the recycling bin. The October Release very much seems to flip this on its head and I am pleased to discover a whole range of new, most clamoured for, features being made available on Portals, which take the product forward in strides and enables organisations to more easily contemplate their introduction.

As you will probably expect based on where things are going in the D365CE space at the moment, the announcements for Flow, PowerApps and the Common Data Service are all very much framed towards the end goal of integrating these and the “old” CRM/D365CE experience together as tightly as possible, a change that should be welcomed. The release notes are also crucial in highlighting the importance of anyone working in this space to be as multi-skilled as possible from a technology standpoint. Microsoft is (quite rightly) encouraging all technology professionals to be fast and reactive to change, and anticipating us to have a diverse range of skills to help the organisations/businesses we work with every day. There is no point in fighting this and, the best way for you to succeed in this climate is to identify the relevant opportunities that you can drive forward from these product announcements and proactively implement as part of the work you are doing each day. In a nutshell, you should know how to deploy a Power BI Dashboard, have familiarity with the type of services that Flow connects to, see the difference between a Canvas and Model-driven PowerApps and – amongst all of this – understand how D365CE solutions operate. Be a Swiss Army Knife as much as possible and deliver as much value and benefit in your role as you possibly can.

Earlier this year, the Business Applications team at Microsoft published a blog post titledĀ Modernizing the way we update Dynamics 365, a significant article that anyone involved with Dynamics 365 Customer Engagement (D365CE) should take time to read through carefully. Indeed, as a direct consequence of the announcements contained in this post, you may now be receiving emails similar to the below if you are an administrator of a D365CE instance:

Changes to well-established processes always can produce a mixture of questions, confusion and, in some cases, frustration for IT teams. Once you have fully understood the broader context of where D365CE is going and also the general sea change that has been occurring since Satya Nadella came to the helm of Microsoft, the modifications to the Update Policy are welcome and, arguably, necessary to ensure that D365CE users and administrators can take advantage of the different features available within a D365CE subscription today. For those who are still scratching their head at all of this, what follows is a summary of the most significant changes announced, along with some additional observations from me on why it is important to embrace all these changes wholeheartedly.

Version 9 or Bust

Longstanding D365CE online customers will be used to the regular update cycles and the ability to defer significant application updatesĀ for a period. While this can be prudent for more complex deployments, it does potentially lead to additional overhead in the long term, mainly if Microsoft were ever to force this decision upon you. The well-established advice has always been to proactively manage your updates at your own pace, ideally targeting at least one major update a year. If you haven’t been doing this, then you may now be in for a particularly nasty shock. As mentioned in the article:

Since every customer will be updated on the continuous delivery schedule, your organization needs to update to the latest version if you are running an older version of Dynamics 365…For customers who are currently running older versions of Dynamics 365, we will continue to provide you with the ability to schedule an update to the latest version and want to make sure this effort is as seamless as possible through continuous improvements in our update engine…For Dynamics 365 (online) customer engagement applications, we sent update communications in May to all customers running v8.1 and have scheduled updates. Customers running v8.2 should plan to update to the latest version by January 31, 2019.

This point is reinforced in a much more explicit manner in the email above:

ACTION NEEDED: Schedule an update for your organization by August 16, 2018. The date for the update should be on or before January 31, 2019. You can find instructions on how to schedule and approve updates here.

If you do not schedule an update in the timeframe mentioned above, Microsoft will schedule an automatic update for your organization on August 17, 2018 and communicate the dates. The automatic update would take place during your normal maintenance window.

The implications should be clear, and it certainly seems that, in this scenario, Microsoft has decidedĀ to eliminate any degree of upgrade flexibility for its customers.

No Changes to Minor/Major Updates?

Again, if you are familiar with how D365CE Online operates, there are two flavours of updates:

  • Minor updates, to address bugs, performance and stability issues, are continually pushed out “behind the scenes”. You have no control over when and how these are applied, but they will always be carried out outside your regions regular business hours. The Office 365 Administrator Portal is your go-to place to view any past or upcoming minor updates.
  • Major updates generally referred to asĀ Spring Wave orĀ Fall Update releases. There has always been two of these each year, and administrators can choose when to apply these to a D365CE instance. These updates can generally take much longer to complete but will introduce significant new features.

Microsoft’s new Update Policy seems to leave this convention intact, with a noteworthy change highlighted below in bold:

We are transforming how we do service updates for Dynamics 365 (online). We will deliver two major releases per year ā€“ April and October ā€“ offering new capabilities and functionality. These updates will be backward compatible so your apps and customizations will continue to work post update. New features with major, disruptive changes to the user experience are off by default. This means administrators will be able to first test before enabling these features for their organization.

In addition to the two major updates, we will continue to deploy regular performance and reliability improvement updates throughout the year. We are phasing deployments over several weeks following safe deployment practices and monitoring updates closely for any issues.

Some additional detail around this will be welcome to determine its effectiveness, but I can imagine some parity with the Experimental Features area in PowerApps, which – contrary to the above – will often introduce new features that are left on by default. A derived version of this feature would, I think, work in practice and hopefully streamline the process of testing new functionality without necessarily introducing it unintended into Production environments.

On-Premise Implications

One question that all of this may raise is around the on-premise version of the application, in particular for those who consume online subscriptions, but use their dual-usage rights to create an on-premise instance instead. This situation becomes more pressing when you consider the following excerpt from the refreshed Update Policy:

Dynamics 365 (Online) version 8.2 will be fully supported until January 31, 2019. Customers running version 8.2 should plan to update to the latest version prior to this date.

Now, the important thing to stress is the fact that the above quotation makes explicit reference to Online as opposed to on-premise. Also, when we check Microsoft’s product lifecycle page, you can see that Mainstream support for this product ends in January 2021. On-premise administrators can, I would suggest, breath a sigh of relief for now, but I would urge you to contact Microsoft to clarify your support arrangements. I think as an organisation as well, you should also start seriously asking yourself the following questions:

  • Is an online, Software as a Service (SaaS) version of the application going to be easier to maintain compared with dedicated server environment(s)?
  • Is it possible to achieve all of your required functionality and business requirements using the Online version of the application?
  • Do you want to ensure you have the latest features exposed to you and can take advantage of Online-only functionality, such as Export to Excel Online?

If the answer to all of the above questions is “Yes”, then a migration to the Online version of the application would be my recommended course of action, as it wouldn’t surprise me if Microsoft were to stop releasing new versions/service packs for the on-premise version of the product or eliminate it by providing inexpensive sandbox instance options.

Recommended Next Steps

The fundamental aim of this move is a housekeeping exercise for Microsoft. The announcement earlier this year of version 2 of the Common Data Service – which is utilising the existing D365CE SQL database for all customisations – is the key driver behind a lot of the changes that are happing in the CRM/D365CE space today. The focus for the product team at Microsoft currently appears to be towards knitting together both experiences into the PowerApps interface. What this means in practice is that the traditional customisation experience is going to slowly fade away, to be replaced by Model-Driven App development instead. This refresh is excellent for several reasons – it provides a much-needed interface update, while also exposing additional functionality to us when creating business applications – but it is evident that such a massive change will require a consistent playing field for all of Microsoft’s existing version 8.2 and below D365CE customers. Getting everyone onto version 9 of the application is the apparent result towards rolling out version 2 of the Common Data Service for all existing customers while ensuring that D365CE can fit into the mould of other application release cycles across Microsoft today. Embracing the change should not be a difficult thing to do and, when you understand the broader context, there is no other option available on the table.

So what are the key takeaways from this that you should be thinking about in the weeks and months ahead? My suggested list would include the following:

  • Schedule your update to version 9 of the application manually well in advance of August 16th 2018.Ā DO NOT put yourself in a position where you are having an update forced upon you and give yourself the amount of time needed to successfully plan and test your upgrade in good time before January 31st 2019. I would also anticipate upgrade slots may start to fill up fast if you want to wait until as late as possible too šŸ™‚
  • Start considering your future strategy in regards to the on-premise version of the application, if you are still supporting these environments. I speak with literally zero authority here, but I would not be surprised if the on-premise version of the application receives no further update at all in future or that dual-usage rights get revoked entirely.
  • Get familiar with the Common Data Service and Power Apps, as this is increasingly going to be the go-to area D365CE development and administration in the future. If you get the opportunity to attend one of Microsoft’s PowerApp in Day course, then be sure to go along without any hesitation. I would also be happy to speak to and help anyone with training in this area.
  • As with anything in life, embrace change, be proactive and identify areas of opportunity from this. A good one from my perspective is the potential to more easily introduce the staggering array of differing Business Application functionality, with the outcome being the ability to quickly deploy bespoke business applications that achieve any possible requirement and integrate with a wide variety of different services or datasets.

I was very honoured and excited to be involved with the very first D365UG/CRMUG North West Chapter Meeting earlier this week, hosted at the Grindsmith just off Deansgate in Manchester. This is the first time that a D365UG/CRMUG event has taken place in the North West, and we were absolutely stunned by the level of interest this event generated – all in all, 37 people attended, representing a broad spectrum of Microsoft partners and organisations of varying sizes.

I very much got the impression that the amount of Dynamics 365 Customer Engagement (D365CE) users in the North West far exceed any number you could assume, and I am really looking forward to seeing how future events develop as we (hopefully!) get more people involved. Despite a few technical glitches with the AV facilities, the feedback we have received to both presentations has been overwhelmingly positive, so a huge thanks to everyone who turned up and to our presenters for the evening

In this post, I wanted to share my thoughts on both sets of presentations, provide an answer to some of the questions that we didn’t get around to due to time constraints and, finally, provide a link to the slide deck from the evening.

Transform Group – The Patient Journey

The first talk of the evening was provided courtesy of Bill Egan at Edgewater Fullscope, who took us through Transform Group’s adoption of D365CE. Bill provided some really useful insights – from both an organisation and a Microsoft partner’s perspective – of the challenges that any business can face when moving across to a system like D365CE. As with any IT project, there were some major hurdles along the way, but Bill very much demonstrated how the business was able to roll with the punches and the very optimistic 16 weeks planned deployment presents an, arguably, essential blueprint in how IT projects need to be executed; namely, targeted towards delivering as much business benefit in a near immediate timeframe.

The key takeaways from me out of all this was in emphasising the importance of adapting projects quickly to changing business priorities and to recognise the continued effort required to ensure that business systems are regularly reviewed and updated to suit the requirements of not just the users, but the wider business.

Power Up Your Power Apps

The second presentation was literally a “head to head” challenge with Craig Bird from Microsoft and Chris “The Tattooed CRM Guy” Huntingford from Hitachi Solutions, seeing who could build the best PowerApps. In the end, the voting was pretty unanimous and Craig was the proud recipient of a prize worthy of a champion. I hope Craig will be wearing his belt proudly at future events šŸ™‚

I found the presentation particularly useful in clearing up a number of worries I had around the Common Data Service and the future of D365CE. The changes that I saw are very much emphasised towards providing a needed facelift to the current customisation and configuration experience within D365CE, with little requirement to factor in migration and extensive learning of new tools to ensure that your D365CE entities are available within the Common Data Service. Everything “just works” and syncs across flawlessly.

https://twitter.com/joejgriffin/status/1009531079492079622

In terms of who had the best app, I think Craig literally knocked the socks off everyone with his translator application. Although I include myself in this category, I was still surprised to see that PowerApps supports Power BI embedded content, courtesy of Chris – a really nice thing to take away for any aspirational PowerApp developer.

Questions & Answers

We managed to get around to most questions for the first presentation but not for the second one. Here’s a list of all the questions that I am able to provide an answer to. I’m still in the process of collating together responses to the other questions received, so please keep checking back if you’re burning question is not answered below:

Presentation

For those who missed the event or are wanting to view the slides without a purple tinge, they will be downloadable for the next 30 days from the following location:

https://jamesgriffin-my.sharepoint.com/:p:/g/personal/joe_griffin_gb_net/EbRAws0urypMkrGyqCzoTdMB4ggjUQI4_npQlEZAYhea4w?e=U3lvf5

Looking Ahead

The next chapter meeting is scheduled to take place on the 2nd of October (venue TBC). If you are interested in getting involved, either through giving a presentation or in helping to organise the event, then please let us know by dropping us a message:

  • Email: crmuguknw@gmail.com
  • Twitter: @CRMUG_UK_NW

PowerApps is very much the in vogue topic at the moment, particularly if you are a Dynamics 365 Customer Engagement professional reconciling yourself with the new state of affairs. The previous sentence may sound negative but is very much contrary to my opinion on PowerApps, which I am finding increased use cases for each day when working to address certain business requirements. Whether you are looking to implement a barcode scanning application or something much more expansive, the set of tools that PowerApps provides from the outset means that traditional developers can very easily achieve solutions that would previously take Visual Studio and a whole breadth of programming knowledge to realise.

On the topic of developers, one thing that they may have to assuage themselves with when working with PowerApps is the inability to display dialog messages within the app when some kind of alert needs to be provided to the user. A typical scenario for this could be to request that the user completes all fields on a form before moving to the next screen, ensuring that an appropriate message is displayed reflecting this fact. Whilst there is no current way of achieving this via a dedicated pop-up control or similar, there are ways that this behaviour can be imitated using existing Label controls and a bit of function wizardry.

The best way to illustrating how to accomplish this is to view an example PowerApps app. Below are screenshots of a very simple two-screen app, with several Text Inputs, a Button and Label control:

The required functionality of the app is to allow navigation to the ‘Thanks for your submission!’Ā screen only if the user has entered data into all of the Text Input controls on the first screen; if this condition is not met, then the user should be prevented from moving to the next screen and an error message should be displayed to advise the user accordingly.

The first step is to create the error message and required text on the first screen. This can be straightforwardly achieved via an additional Label control, with some text formatting and colour changes to make it noticeable to the user.

As with many other controls within PowerApps, you have the ability to toggle the visibility of Labels either on a consistent or variable basis. The Visible property is your go-to destination for this and, as the next step, the value of this field should be updated to readĀ ErrorVisible – the name of a variable storing the state of the controls visibility (either true or false). If done correctly, as indicated in the screenshot below, you will notice that the Label control will immediately disappear from the screen on the right. This is because the default value of the newly specified variable isĀ false.

The next step involves the invocation of a somewhat complex PowerApps function to implement the required logic on the Button control. The entire function to use is reproduced below in its entirety:

If(Or(IsBlank(TextInput1.Text),IsBlank(TextInput2.Text),IsBlank(TextInput3.Text),IsBlank(TextInput4.Text)), Set(ErrorVisible, true), Navigate(Screen2,ScreenTransition.Fade))

To break the above down for those who are unfamiliar with working with functions:

  • IsBlank does exactly what it says on the tin, but it’s important to emphasise that to check whether a field contains a value or not, you have to specify the Text property of the control.
  • TheĀ Set function enables us to specify the values of variables on the fly, whether they have been declared already or not somewhere else on the app. No additional syntax is required, making it very straightforward to create runtime variables that store values throughout an entire app session.
  • Navigate specifies any other screen on the app to open. We can also select a transition effect to use which, in this case, is the Fade transition.
  • Finally, all of the above is wrapped around an If logic statement that prevents the user from moving to the next screen if any of the Text Input controls do not contain a value (courtesy of theĀ Or statement).

The function needs to be entered within theĀ OnSelectĀ property of the button control, and your form should resemble the below if done correctly:

With everything configured, its time to give the app a test drive. šŸ™‚ The sequence below provides a demonstration of how the app should work if all of the above steps are followed:

A final, potentially optional step (depending on what your app is doing), is to ensure that the error message is hidden as soon as the user navigates away from the 1st screen. This can be achieved by updating theĀ ErrorVisible variable back toĀ false as soon as the user navigates onto the second screen, as indicated in the screenshot below:

Conclusions or Wot I Think

PowerApps is still very much a product in its infancy, very neatly fitting into the new wave of Microsoft products with regular release cycles, feature updates and ongoing development. It can be, therefore, unrealistic to expect a full range of features which satisfyĀ allĀ business scenarios to be available at this juncture. Having said that, one feature that could be added to greatly benefit data entry into forms is the ability to display pop-out dialog messages, depending on field requirement levels or other conditional logic. The key benefit of this would be the need not to resort to complex functions to achieve this functionality and to, instead, allow error messages or alerts to be configured via the PowerApps GUI. A similar comparison can perhaps be made with Business Rules in Dynamics 365 Customer Engagement. Before their introduction, developers would have to resort to JScript functions to display form-level alerts based on conditional logic. Not everyone is familiar with JScript, meaning a significant barrier was in place for those looking to implement arguably straightforward business logic. Now, with Business Rules, we have the ability to replicateĀ a lotĀ of functionality that JScript allows for, speeding up the time it takes to implement solutions and providing a much clearer mechanism of implementing straightforward business logic. Hopefully, in the months ahead, we can start to see a similar type of feature introduced within PowerApps to aid in developing a similar solution demonstrated in this post.

The ability to develop a custom barcode scanning application, compatible with either a specific mobile, tablet or other device type, would traditionally be in the realm for a skilled developer to implement fully. The key benefit this brings is the ability to develop a highly tailored business application, with almost limitless potential. The major downside is, of course, the requirement for having this specific expertise within a business and sufficient time to plan, develop and test the application.

When it comes to using some of the newly introduced weapons in the Microsoft Online Services arsenal (such as Microsoft Flow, a topic which has been a recent focus on the blog), these traditional assumptions around application development can be discarded and empowering tools are provided to developers & non-developers to enable them to create highly custom business application without writing a single line of code. A perfect example of what can be achieved as a consequence has already been hinted at. With PowerApps, you have the ability to create a highly functional barcode scanning application that can perform a variety of functions – register event attendees details into a SQL database, lookup a Product stored on Dynamics 365 Customer Engagement and much, much more. The assumingly complex becomes bafflingly simplistic.

I’ve been lucky to (finally!) have a chance to play around with PowerApps and the barcode scanning control recently. What I wanted to do as part of this week’s blog post was provide a few tips on using this control, with the aim of easing anyone else’s journey when using it for the first time.

Make sure your barcode type is supported – and factor in multiple barcode types, if required

The one thing you have to get your head around fairly early on is that the barcode control can only support 1 barcode type at any given time. At the time of writing this post, the following barcode types are supported:

  • Codabar
  • Code 128
  • Code 39
  • EAN
  • Interleaved 2 of 5
  • UPC

Note in particular the lack of current support for QR codes, which are essentially a barcode on steroids. There are, however, plans to introduce this as an option in the very near future, so we won’t have to wait too long for this.

Be sure to RTFM

It can be easy to forget this rather forceful piece of advice, but the importance of familiarising yourself with the barcode control, its properties and some of the acknowledged limitations can go a long way towards streamlining the deployment of a workable barcode scanner app. I’ve collated together a list of the most useful articles below, which I highly encourage you to read through in their entirety:

Whilst PowerApps is generally quite a good tool to jump into without prerequisite knowledge, working with specific controls – such as this one – warrants a much more careful study to ensure you fully understand what is and isn’t supported. What’s also quite helpful about the articles (jumping back to barcode types for a second) is that an example is provided on how to create a drop-down control to change the type of barcode that can be scanned at runtime. Typically, for an internal app where a defined barcode type is utilised consistently, the requirement for this may not be present; but it is nice to know the option is there.

For the best success rate when scanning, ensure the barcode control occupies as much space as possible

On one of the example posts above, an example is provided of a barcode control situated atop a Gallery control with a search box. Whilst this may look appealing from a usability aspect, your main issue will be in ensuring that devices using the app can properly scan any potential barcode. For example, when testing iOS devices in this scenario, I found it literally impossible to ensure a consistent scan rate. I’ve not tested with other mobile devices to confirm the same issue occurs, but given that the issue on iOS appears to be down to a “memory issue”, I can imagine the same problem occurring for lower spec Android devices as well. Microsoft’s recommendation for optimal barcode scanning controls provides a workaround solution that can be adapted:

To delay running out of memory on devices that are running iOS, set the Height property of the Barcode control to 700 (or lower) and the Scanrate property to 30.

With this in mind, you can create aĀ dedicated screen on your PowerApp for barcode scanning that occupies sufficient space, whilst also providing an easy to operate experience for your end users. An optimal layout example is provided below:

Then, with a bit of expression/formula trickery, functionality for this screen can be nicely rounded out as follows:

  • Set theĀ DefaultĀ property value of the Text Input control to the name of the scanner control. This will then place the value of any scanned barcode within the input control, allowing the user to modify if necessary.
  • For theĀ ScanĀ button, define theĀ Back() expression for the OnSelect action. Then, set theĀ Default property value to the Text Input control on the screen above to whatever control needs to have the value of the scanned barcode control (e.g. if working with a gallery/search box, then you would set this on the search box).
  • Finally, the Cancel button needs to do the same as theĀ Scan button, in addition to safely discarding whatever has been scanned. This can be achieved by specifying theĀ ClearĀ command for the control that is being passed the scanned value when theĀ Scan button is selected. Rather handily, we can specify multiple expression/formulas for a single event via the use of a semi-colon delimiter. Therefore, to go back to the previous screen and clear the value of theĀ Text Input control calledĀ MySearchBox, use the following expression:
    • Back();MySearchBox.Clear

By having a barcode control that mimics the size indicated above, scan rates for iOS devices are improved by a significant margin and the control becomes a dream to use šŸ™‚

And the rest…

To round things off, there are a couple of other concepts surrounding barcode controls that I thought may be useful to point out:

  • TheĀ Camera property value is not documented at all for this control, but my understanding is that it provides a mechanism for specifying the device camera number/ID to use for the control. So, for example, if you have a Windows 10 tablet device and want to ensure that the front camera is used to scan barcodes for an entry registration system, you can use this option to force this. Utilising this setting, I would imagine, limits your app across multiple device types, so I would advise caution in its use. Let me know in the comments below if you have any joy using this property at all.
  • By default, the Barcode detection setting is enabled. This displays a yellow box when a possible scan area is detected and also a red line to indicate when a barcode value is read successfully. This setting is designed to assist when scanning, but I have noticed it can be erratic from time to time. It can be disabled safely without reducing the scanning functionality too much; you just won’t know straight away when you have scanned something successfully.
  • As the control is reliant on individual device camera privacy settings, you will need to ensure that any corporate device policies do not block the usage of the camera whilst using PowerApps and, in addition, you will need to give explicit camera access permission when launching the app for the first time. I did encounter a strange issue on iOS where the camera did not load after granting this permission. A device reboot seemed to resolve the issue.

Conclusions or Wot I Think

I am a strong believer in providing fast and effective resolution of any potential business requirement or concern. Typically, those working within an IT department will not be directly responsible for generating revenue or value for the business beyond IT support. This is what makes an attack-focused, proactive and value generating outlook an essential requirement, in my view, to anyone working in an IT-focused role. In tandem with this approach, having the tools at your disposal that will aid you in adhering to these tenents are ones that should be adopted readily and, after prudent assessment (i.e. balanced and not time costly), without fear. PowerApps, and the use cases hinted towards within this post, scores very highly on my list of essential tools in fostering this approach. It really ensures that typical “Power” users within an organisation can develop quick and easy solutions, with lack of previous experience not necessarily being a burden. In my own case, having had a firm background using Microsoft stack solutions in the past meant that my initial journey with PowerApps was that much easier. Ultimately, I think, PowerApps aims to save time and reduce the business concerns that arise from bloated software deployments, putting a much more business-focused onus on individuals to develop valuable solutions within a particular department or organisation.