Microsoft aims to make it easier to build custom Teams apps, helping your team enjoy easier and more specialized collaboration.
With more and more of us working remotely, tools like Zoom, Slack and Microsoft's Teams have become critical pieces of business infrastructure. Understandably, most of the focus has been on their video conferencing and online meeting tools, but tools like Teams are also designed to support new forms of work, integrating with process automation tools to offer a new endpoint for your workflow. By hosting all the little tasks that get in the way of your actual work, they're intended to help you keep productive and avoid distractions.
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It's important to understand that Teams is a lot more than a way of running meetings. While they're important, so is its role as a collaboration hub. You can think of it as the place to work with others when you're in the office or part of a distributed team. That collaboration model means you're going to need to build your own tooling that fits how your organizations and teams work, at the same time as folding in third-party tools from Teams' app marketplace and managing how they're deployed and used.
Teams for developers
Microsoft comes from a developer tools background, so it's not surprising that it sees Teams as yet another platform for your code. Right from its launch, Teams has offered a way of hosting your content and code, integrating them into tabs and into the platform's persistent chat panes. Tools like Azure's Bot Framework and Microsoft 365's Adaptive Cards are at the heart of Teams developer platform, while technologies like SharePoint provide a host for documents and collaborations.
Initially much of that was handled inside Teams itself, along with a set of tools that provided a framework for building web-based applications in Visual Studio Code. If you wanted to customize Teams and build your own apps, you needed to track down documentation and build your own toolchain from scratch.
Introducing the Teams Developer Portal
That's all changing, with the launch of Microsoft's new Teams Developer Portal. You can think of it as a one-stop shop for all your Teams application needs, whether you're writing code or if you're simply managing the apps in your instance. The portal mixes documentation and tools as well as hosting UI toolkits that can help give your Teams apps a consistent look and feel.
Microsoft is giving all its Microsoft 365 web properties a similar look and feel, based on the Fluent design language it's bringing to Office and Windows 11. The site is full of pleasing boxes with curved corners, built using the new Fluent icons. Right from the off, you're encouraged to Get Started, taking you straight to the App builder section of the portal.
This is where you build and manage your Teams apps. Creating an app drops you straight into a web-based configuration tool, where you give an app a name, a description, and fill in details of developers, its endpoint URL, as well as policies and version numbers. You can add icons, connect to key Teams features, as well as setting permissions and applying a sign-on policy.
What the apps section of the Teams Developer Portal does is simplify the process of packaging an app for publication on the Teams app store, whether you publish it in your own organization's tenants or intend to make it available to anyone in any Teams instance anywhere. There's even a test and validation tool, that checks whether your code is ready for the store. This isn't a full test, it only makes sure that your code meets the basic Teams requirements. It doesn't test the code, so you need to make it part of your own software development lifecycle process.
Building apps using the Developer Portal
It's important to remember that the Portal isn't an online application development environment. That means you must download and instal your choice of Teams development tools, using them to build your app and its manifest. It would be nice to see Microsoft using this portal to embed pre-configured instances of GitHub's Codespaces platform, complete with web servers and Visual Studio Code, ready to build code without having to do the work of setting up a full development environment.
You still have to build your app using Teams' web application development tools, building the app and its manifest. Microsoft uses the front page of the portal to provide quick links for the Visual Studio Code extension, a Teams UI kit, and a sample app to help you get started, as well as all the Teams developer documentation. While these are tools that have been available for some time, now they're all in one place making it much easier to get started.
Other tools are available from the Portal's tools tab, with tooling for editing and designing Adaptive Cards for use in your apps, as well as for working with and managing artificial intelligence bots for chat integration with your apps. It's clear that this section is a work in progress; as more Teams development tools become available you should expect to find them here. It's a little surprising not to find some of the more obvious candidates, though. One that's conspicuous by its absence is the Microsoft Graph Explorer, as the graph APIs are an important tool for integrating Teams applications with the rest of Microsoft 365.
Adding custom scenes to Teams
Microsoft recently updated Teams' Together Mode to support custom scenes. The Developer Portal includes a tool for creating and sharing your own backgrounds using your own images. Start by uploading an image to the portal, and then select the number of participants you want to include in a meeting. This adds outlines for participants to the meeting layout, so you can drag and drop them into the places you want.
Each element is a layer, so you can build layered environments with different elements, and with users placed appropriately. Perhaps your background image is a familiar meeting room, with a separate table and chairs. User images can be stacked around the table, simulating an in-person event, with Teams' layering tools allowing one user to be in front of another or behind the table. Certain spots can be assigned to a meeting organizer or a presenter, so they're always in the same place in a meeting.
The editor has most of the features you'd expect from a basic image editing environment, so anyone familiar with PowerPoint can build a Teams meeting space. There's an option to test an environment in Teams, so you can be sure that your space is right for your meetings.
It's good to see many of the tools you need to build Teams applications in one place. Microsoft has gone a long way to make this new Developer Portal the first destination for anyone who wants to build their own Teams services, all it needs are a handful of extra features and it will be ready for prime time.
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