Satya Nadella kicks off the Build 2020  online event
PHOTO: Microsoft

Microsoft Build took place online last week, but the move to a virtual event in no way curtailed the amount or velocity of announcements the company made. For the purposes of this piece, we're going to focus on just one of the many Build announcements: Microsoft Lists. 

Microsoft Lists Is a Result of the Evolution of SharePoint Lists  

Microsoft used Build 2020 to introduce Microsoft Lists, a new Office 365 application. Lists, with a capital L, is an evolution of the lower-case lists that have formed the major data structure for SharePoint for nearly two decades. SharePoint lists are essentially a flat file database: easier to use for most people than Access databases, although not as flexible or powerful (as they are not relational). Even a Document Library is just a kind of list.

SharePoint lists have been key to the product's success in many and varied use cases, providing a structure for custom development, and for using with the old SharePoint workflow mechanisms.

Microsoft have continually evolved lists, so when SharePoint Online got the "modern" treatment, so did lists, complete with new formatting and other features. However, the new announcement signifies Microsoft breaking the List construct away from its SharePoint home and taking its evolution to a new level.

Related Article: Microsoft's AI Play Took Center Stage at Build 2019

Lists Breaks Free of SharePoint Confines

Now Lists is a going to be a separate Office 365 application, accessible on the web via a new home page, from within SharePoint, from within Teams (of course!) and eventually from a new mobile app. Microsoft states Lists will be available in the summer, with the mobile app coming down the line.

Microsoft Lists  from Build 2020
PHOTO: Microsoft Tech Community

So why break it out, and evolve this capability into its own app? Separating Lists out allows Microsoft to embed its capabilities anywhere within Office 365, and although I haven't seen it expressed this way, to create an easy to use and easy to customize data source for PowerApps, and particularly for Power Automate.

Related Article: SharePoint Conference 2019 Introduces Home Sites, Sensitivity Labels

Microsoft Lists for: Information Tracking, Work Tracking, Work Management

In other words, Lists appear to be primed to compete with products like Airtable, Jira or even ZenDesk as a work management tool. It is not yet another task manager. The hosts of a popular Windows podcast seemed confused (granted, they might not have a very enterprise view of software) as to why Microsoft would do this, when they have so many other tools. Personally I think it is pretty obvious when you look at the feature set, but Microsoft senior product manager Mark Kashman responded to a similar comment with this list, which I think is a good way of differentiating the different tools:

  • To Do — A personal, light weight task management tool for individuals
  • Planner — Team task management
  • Tasks — Task management for the team within Teams, to help users manage and prioritize their work generated, and tasks aggregated from across the Microsoft portfolio of apps.

So you could create a to-do list in Lists, but that isn't really what it is for. What is it for then? Well for tracking in and managing work, as noted above. Some of the high-level features to help you do that include:

  • Start from blank, import from Excel, edit an existing list to get started, or …
  • Use a template: looks as if Lists comes preset with a lot of templates as a starting point for common use cases.
  • Save in “My Lists” while you are working on it, and share it with your team when you're ready.
  • Share using the Standard Office 365 sharing controls: read only or edit.
  • Conditional formatting: If, then logic that can be applied to the formatting of the List data.
  • Gallery view shows data in cards, with the ability to customize further with a tile designer.
  • Calendar view for any list that has one or more date or time fields.
  • Commenting directly on the List items.
  • Automate > Create new rule – create rules to take actions when the List data is changed – I see this as a lightweight complement to using Power Automate.
  • Customizable forms for data entry to the List.
  • Embed in Teams: every item in a list can have discussion in the context of a channel, or the list item itself.
  • Mobile apps for IOS and Android: users can build a list on mobile, not just view or work with existing ones.

Embedding in Teams is key for the Microsoft Office 365 strategy. I have previously written about how the company wants to make Teams the new portal, the entry way to all work and tasks. The idea of making a powerful, flexible, but easy to use Lists application and embedding it into, and working with it directly from Teams should be no surprise.

Related Article: Is Microsoft Teams the 'Portal' We've Been Looking For?

Drive Process Automation With Lists

The other powerful aspect to Lists from my perspective is the combination with PowerApps and Power Automate. Lists can be used to capture data that triggers an automated process using Power Automate and it can also capture the output created by a workflow, and present it in a nice graphical style. Power Automate itself continues to evolve, with the addition of robotic process automation (RPA) and chatbot features. At NetDocuments we have upgraded our own Connector for Power Automate to include over 50 API calls to our platform, as we see the potential for Power Automate to help drive digital transformation through automation.

Add all of this to the upcoming general release of Project Cortex, Microsoft's AI-driven knowledge graph, and the Build 2020 announcements are very exciting. Let your imagination go wild on what you can do with these products to solve your business problems.

Author's Note: Read more about Microsoft Lists below: