The evolving Microsoft 365 development platform: Microsoft Lists and open-source Fluid Framework

Open-source Fluid Framework and the new Lists experience are both about breaking up data into chunks that enable real-time updates and collaboration in multiple systems through the Microsoft Graph, Office and beyond.

Should your business choose Microsoft Office 365 as its productivity suite?
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Outlook on the web and the Office website will be the first place Microsoft's Fluid components show up, letting you use text, images, tables, charts and task lists in Outlook messages that aren't just formatted text in an email but connected chunks of data that live in a dynamic, collaborative document in SharePoint Online and the Microsoft Graph.

Initially, those chunks of data come not from Word and PowerPoint and Excel but from a new Fluid Workspace that can handle text, tables, lists, meeting agendas and action items. In time, we expect the Office apps – especially OneNote – to get updated to include Fluid components, and Fluid tasks will also integrate with To Do in the future so that @ mentions can become To Do tasks.

The Fluid Workspace will start rolling out 'soon' to Microsoft 365 Enterprise and education subscribers who sign up for Targeted Release (what used to be Office Insider).

But Microsoft is also open sourcing the Fluid Framework so that those components can work in third-party applications and websites – without any connection to SharePoint – as well as for Microsoft 365 developers who build apps and add-ons.

Fluid everywhere

"We think Fluid is a layer that will help unlock the creation of all sorts of applications with different front ends and back ends," Microsoft 365 CVP Jeff Teper told TechRepublic. "We certainly want people to take advantage of it in Microsoft 365, and so our first implementation of a back end for Fluid is SharePoint in the OneDrive consumer service. But we're open-sourcing Fluid to make it available to developers, who we hope will see how powerful it's been for our stack and build it in their own stack, with their own front end and back end."

That could also include integrations with systems that aren't about documents, but contain information that employees need to collaborate about, in say Microsoft Teams

"A lot of line-of-business apps aren't real-time," Teper pointed out. "If you're in Teams and you're having a conversation about two-week-old version of the data, it's bad." Switching to a Teams tab with a web view of the data means it's up to date, but then the conversation is happening away from the data.

"What you really want is for that to be in the conversation stream and to be updated as the CRM system or the issue tracker updates," Teper said. "As more data in the world is exposed by Fluid it unlocks all sorts of applications, one of which will be us using these Fluid data structures through different systems in Teams to give people the latest version of the truth. And if it's appropriate for them to edit it, they'll be able to edit it right in the conversation, as opposed to jump between six applications to do so."

With Fluid being open source, that can also happen in other applications, Teper pointed out. "I hope we see line-of-business applications become real time, delightful, interactive – and expose components against their storage system, their own business process back end. And then those components can be integrated in the future in different UIs – including ours, but other people's as well."

Microsoft Lists (coming 'later this summer') has less of the grand vision of connecting information, but it could be more significant than it first seems. Yes, it's a mobile and web lists app that makes lists a first-class data option the way Microsoft To Do did for tasks. But underneath it's SharePoint and the Microsoft Graph enabling a whole new generation of citizen app developers.

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Lists are midway between Excel, SharePoint and a custom business app.

Image: Microsoft

Lists everywhere

SharePoint sites can do much more than Lists, but for many users Lists covers most of what they need to do in SharePoint. That includes making lists of things – issues, assets, people, inventory, events, places, tasks, steps in a business process, social media posts or anything else you can think of – tracking them, updating them and sharing them around (via SharePoint, inside Teams, by @ mentioning relevant people, or just by adding more people to the list as if it was a To Do list or a Word document).

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Lists templates help you make common business apps that are mini-databases.

Image: Microsoft

The Lists web app will include plenty of templates for common business processes like hiring staff, planning events, managing assets and tracking issues, or you can start with a blank list and add fields. But a lot of the data that Lists could help you work with already lives in Excel (the universal home for this kind of semi-structured data), and you can create a new list by importing it from Excel, with the column headings turning into field names.

Fields can be images, text, dates, times, tags, people and other common data types that are useful in what's basically a simple database. Excel-style conditional formatting lets you pick specific list items to highlight and you can add reminders to items with simple rules that will be familiar to Outlook users.

SEE: Office 365: A guide for tech and business leaders (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

As well as a straightforward list view, you can see items in a customisable calendar or a gallery view. You can pick and choose which fields to show or use formulas to show and hide fields dynamically – so the form for entering a business expense or a job description can look very different from the way managers see all the expenses and jobs in the list – and you can share individual items or views as well as the whole list.

You can also use custom visuals in the header and footer to make that all look less like a standard SharePoint list and rather more like a custom app.

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The Lists gallery view looks very like an app - or a SharePoint site

Image: Microsoft

Lists are databases are apps

You can think of Lists as the combination of Trello or Asana or Zenkit or Microsoft Planner with Access, Visual Basic or Lightswitch (spending on what era of business app development makes most sense to you). It's a way of building the kind of database-driven apps to fit a particular line-of-business process that you can make in FileMaker, but with the data staying in the Microsoft 365 tenant, with the same user management, security, permissions, compliance, auditing, retention and document lifecycle as everything else in Office 365.

Microsoft already has a low-code development platform in Power Apps, but the 'app' that many people need is a list with some smarts in, and that's exactly what Lists gives you. If you need more, you can extend it with Power Apps and make it part of a workflow with Power Automate. For developers, Lists is an API for structured data they can use with the Microsoft Graph. If you're familiar with SharePoint, Teper pointed out, you can view this as "we made SharePoint lists ten times better and embedded them everywhere and kept exposing them via the Microsoft Graph".

That flexibility includes the business development tool a lot of people forget about: Excel.

Your list might have started in Excel, and you can also get data back out of Lists into Excel, if you need to work with functions, sum data, create Pivot Tables or use other spreadsheet features rather than just the list management features (and you want to do that in Excel rather than Power BI). Sadly, that's not a live, always-up-to-date, two-way data connection: the Export to Excel option creates a new Excel table with a one-way data connection that uses a refreshable web query. So you can't update the list from that Excel table, but you can keep updating the spreadsheet to get changes from the list (and if the Excel spreadsheet lives in OneDrive, you could automate that with Power Automate).

But the beauty of Lists is that it's the same structured data that you can access in many different ways, and that works because Microsoft 365 is a platform rather than just a set of Office applications with a bucket of cloud storage.

"We're continually adding more building blocks that people can use, whether you're a citizen developer or full developer, to go assemble into your processes and automation," Teper told TechRepublic. Lists is a building block in the same way that tasks or files are – and Teper's last role at Microsoft involved turning SharePoint from somewhere files got trapped to the back end for files that were available in many different ways.

"Files were in SharePoint but we made it a platform for files," Teper said. "So OneDrive can get to all your files, you can get to all your files in Office, SharePoint powers Fluid, people build Power Apps on files in SharePoint, and then we did all this integration with Teams. The fastest growing way to access files in OneDrive in SharePoint is actually through the Teams UI."

The plan is to do the same with Lists, working with the same data in whatever way makes the most sense for you.

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You can embed a List into Teams.

Image: Microsoft

"We have this great list capability with a brand-new user interface in the graph platform, but these will show up in Teams and in new standalone List apps, just like we have a standalone OneDrive app," said Teper. "Somebody, without any development, can add a few columns and get rich views and forms, and then have all those updates show up into chat-based messages and get access to that on their phone. And if they need the headroom in the app they can go build a custom Power App, or a hardcore custom development, using the Graph API."

"I think we have the most flexible information worker database ever with what we're introducing in Lists, because we've got that standalone hero experience, we've got all the embedded experience in Teams and SharePoint. We've got the spectrum from end user to RAD to pro developer."

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