For anyone working in the collaboration space, or indeed the wider digital workplace, there was only one thing happening this week, albeit a big thing, notably Microsoft Build.

Build is Redmond,Wash.-based Microsoft’s annual developer event and one of the key dates in the enterprise tech calendar. This year, like many other big events, it was virtual. For this week, and because of the importance of some of the announcements, we will focus largely on what came out of the two day conference.

The list of releases this year is impressive and impossible to list in full here. Among them, the most interesting for the digital workplace must be that Fluid Framework is to be made available as open source code soon. Microsoft is also introducing Fluid Components for Office documents and productivity apps too.

Components transform tables, graphs, and lists that you typically find in Office documents into "blocks" that can be worked on collaboratively in real time by dozens or even hundreds of users in real-time in whatever online Office document the group needs to work in. The components can also be pieced together like Lego bricks across several apps and the web.

The Fluid Framework was introduced at Ignite 2019 (see video above) in public preview and was designed to make collaboration seamless by breaking down barriers between apps. The Fluid Framework components, which will be available in Microsoft 365 will enable users to collaborate on dynamic content and create connected components that can be shared simultaneously and seamlessly across apps. As a result, tables, charts, and task lists can be easily inserted in Outlook for the web. Workspaces can be created and managed within documents or activity feeds, recommended lists and @mentions — or search for them across” “Imagine you could take those Lego pieces and put them in any place you wanted: in emails, in chats, in other apps,” explains Jared Spataro, head of Microsoft 365, in an interview with The Verge. “As people work on them, they will always be updated and contain the latest information.”

The web-based framework of Fluid can be used to instantly make apps collaborative. It includes data structures that perform low-latency synchronization and a relay service to connect endpoints. If you replace your static data structures with Fluid data structures, your app instantly supports real-time collaboration. And, because Fluid Framework components are lightweight, edits are instantaneous, empowering work to be fast and flexible. These experiences will be available to those with a Microsoft 365 enterprise license in the next few months.

Explaining its decisions to open source the Fluid Framework, Spataro wrote in a blog that the potential of the Fluid Framework can only be accomplished through creating a diverse, open, and vibrant developer community. Along with the release of additional developer documentation and tooling, Microsoft is inviting developers everywhere to work on Fluid Framework as it is built and released.

Microsoft said that it's going to be sending invitations "soon" to Microsoft 365 Enterprise and Education customers enrolled in its targeted release program, although it hasn’t indicated when that might be or when others will be able to access it too. Fluid Framework will be available as a GitHub repository in the month following Build.

Microsoft Gives Teams More Enterprise Appeal

Teams also received a lot of love. It’s not that what was announced for Teams is earth shattering individually, but in the current enterprise collaboration market,  any improvement to Teams adds pressure on its competitors that include Slack, G Suite, Workplace by Facebook and, in the video collaboration space, Workplace by Facebook.

That said, Teams got a bunch of new additions that collectively, give users some interesting new functionality. And the focus has been firmly on users. First and foremost, Microsoft has created new customizable templates for creating new teams. Users can, for example choose from common business scenarios, like event management and crisis response, as well as industry-specific templates, like a hospital ward or bank branch. Each template comes with pre-defined channels, apps, and guidance.

Microsoft also announced that it will now be easier to create and manage chatbots for Teams. All users must do now is to select the bot they want to use and then click "Add to Teams." In addition, Power Virtual Agents now supports single sign-on (SSO), so users will no longer have to reauthenticate when using Teams for the first time.

It will now also be easier to schedule, manage and conduct business-to-consumer virtual appoints though the new Bookings app integration for Teams.

And finally, Microsoft will also soon enable a new feature that makes it easier to integrate Power Apps and Power Automate business process templates into Teams, and Power BI users, which will soon be able to quickly share reports to Teams with the click of a single button. 

Individually, the improvements will give different kinds of users’ different kinds of new capabilities and advantages. Collectively, the additions listed here, as well as a number of other improvements, gives Microsoft a deeper reach in the enterprise and takes it a step further towards attaining the digital workplace ideal of a single place where workers can get all their work done.

New Lists App for Microsoft 365

One further announcement for the collaboration space that is worth noting is that Microsoft is creating a new lists app for businesses that use its Microsoft 365 services. Microsoft Lists is a Microsoft 365 app that helps users track information and organize work. They enable workplace managers to track issues, assets, routines, contacts, inventory and more using customizable views and smart rules and alerts to keep everyone in sync.

Learning Opportunities

This is not the same as Microsoft’s To Do tool, Lists builds on the “the foundational innovation of SharePoint lists” and will integrate with Microsoft Teams, SharePoint and Outlook. However, what is really useful here is that it integrates into Microsoft Teams and enables workers and workplaces to collaborate on lists, using flexible views like grids, cards, and calendar. This brings content and conversation side-by-side in one integrated experience. You can either add an existing list to a Teams channel or create a new list directly in Teams and chat on individual list items.

Lists also integrates into SharePoint and other Microsoft products and will launch this summer on the web, with mobile apps slated for later this year.

Microsoft Buys Softomotive

A final announcement made at Build that will have some interesting repercussions is the announcement that Microsoft has acquired UK-based Softomotive, a robotic process automation (RPA) vendor. Financial details of the deal were not disclosed. According to a statement about the deal Microsoft plans to incorporate Softomotive's products, including WinAutomation, into its Microsoft Power Automate (Flow) tool.

By bringing Softomotive’s desktop automation together with the existing Microsoft Power Automate capabilities, at uniquely affordable pricing, Microsoft is further democratizing RPA and enabling everyone to create bots to automate manual business processes.

Softomotive enables more than 9,000 global customers automate business processes across legacy and modern desktop applications. Together with Power Automate, WinAutomation will provide customers additional options for RPA desktop authoring so anyone can build a bot and automate Windows-based tasks.

The combined offering will also enable RPA connectivity to many new apps and services including SAP and traditional green-screen terminal applications. Already, over 350,000 organizations use Microsoft Power Automate every month build and improve their productivity with advanced features like AI-based data understanding through AI Builder, UI-based application automation through UI flows, and integrating with applications and databases via 315 built-in API connectors.

Microsoft is making the capability available at no additional cost to customers with an RPA attended license in Power Automate.

Workplace from Facebook Reaches 5 Million Paid Users

Finally, this week, Facebook has announced that its enterprise connectivity platform Workplace from Facebook now has five million paid customers and is releasing new video features as millions continue to work remotely. This is considerable progress. Last October, Facebook announced that the number of paid customers using Workplace reached three million. As of Q1 this year, that number now exceeds 5 million.

These figures are only until the end of March too. April saw the health crisis really kicking-in so it is likely that during that month, user numbers soared as it did with other players in the market.

While Facebook is a late entrant into this market, its progress has been constant and five million paying — along with millions more using the free components, is no small achievement.

Slack claims it has 12 million daily users and more than 119,000 paying customers, which include many more individual users. For its part, Microsoft’s Teams most recent numbers from March are 44 million daily users, but as it is generally associated with Office 365 or now, Microsoft 365 it is impossible to know how many paid users it has.

Build and Google I/O were always two of the big events in the enterprise collaboration calendar, but unfortunately Google cancelled the event completely, so it is impossible to compare the two companies and their progress this year. However, over the coming weeks and months it is likely that we will be hearing a lot more news from G Suite — and the other players in the market — in the coming months.