Access DevCon 2021: Day 1

If you weren't able to make it to virtual Access DevCon Vienna 2021, here's what you missed on Day 1.

Access DevCon 2021: Day 1

Today was the first day of the annual Access DevCon Vienna conference.  Due to COVID-19, the conference was held virtually.  Here's a quick recap of the day's speakers.

Access Team Update

Joe Jimenez and Courtney Owen from the Microsoft Access development team gave a short demo on the Dataverse platform.  Dataverse integration is the Access development team's primary focus at the moment.  Microsoft is scheduling an insider release for June with general availability in August.  After the demo, the team answered questions for about 30 minutes.  

There was no groundbreaking news.  The team mostly stuck to the timeline of the official Microsoft Access roadmap.

The biggest news surrounded the shuttering of the UserVoice website for gathering feedback.  The team assured the attendees that Microsoft will be replacing the UserVoice functionality with a different application.  They are retaining the data from UserVoice and will use it to populate the new, as-yet-unnamed feedback app.

Power Apps

Conference organizer Karl Donaubauer presented on the topic of Power Apps.  Power Apps appears to be Microsoft's contribution to the no/low code custom database-in-the-cloud space.  Other big players in this space are Airtable and Coda.  Microsoft intends for Power Apps to fill the gap created when Access Web Apps was deprecated.

I think the best thing Karl did in his talk is simplify the pricing/licensing model of Power Apps.  In short, the least expensive way to use Power Apps is with a Microsoft 365 Business subscription, as even a $5/month Business Basic plan offers Power Apps support.

Those MS 365 plans come with support for using "Standard Connectors" in Power Apps, such as Excel, SharePoint, OneDrive, and Google Drive.  If you need to use "Premium Connectors"–such as Dataverse, SQL Server, Oracle, SAP, and Stripe–then you will need to purchase a per-app license for $10/month or a per-user license for $40/month.

Power Apps learning resources

Finally, Karl closed by recommending some resources if you are interested in learning more about Power Apps:

Access in Production Control

Davide Le Mantia, from Palermo, Italy, demonstrated a Microsoft application he built that runs an entire garment production facility.  He spoke of his program as being a "two-sided application."  One side provided an easy-to-use touchscreen application for floor workers to use, while the other side provided more advanced functionality for the back-office management team.

Davide heroically worked through some unforeseen technical difficulties when the battery on his wireless mouse died right at the start of his presentation.  In unrelated news, I changed the batteries in my own wireless mouse prior to my scheduled speaking session tomorrow.

Attractive Infographics

David Nealey, from Colorado, demonstrated his custom proposal management software.  Leaning heavily on research in behavioral psychology, his application uses infographics to convey information in an easy-to-understand way.

Rather than blocks of text boxes jammed onto a form, David focuses on highlighting only the most important information.  Many of his forms and reports aggregated data into a dashboard-like interface with clear red-yellow-green indicators to help guide the consumer of the information.

David favors simplicity.  A retired geographer, he admitted that VBA was not his strong suit.  He creates most of his graphics in PowerPoint, then uses screen capturing software to move them into Access.  He also takes a brute-force approach to his forms and reports, as his application currently has more than 6,000 combined form and report objects.  The proliferation of graphics and Access objects does come with a price, as the size of the front-end database is roughly 1.5 GB.

I found David's talk intriguing in a number of ways:

  • He emphasized graphics and visual elements in his program.  This is something I often overlook in my own applications.
  • Building useful software is so much more than algorithms and database normalization.  Without strong business domain knowledge, a beautifully architected application is worthless.
  • There really is nothing else like Access on the market.  The combination of features–user interface forms, printable reports, built-in database, and capable programming language–empowers value creation without requiring a four-year computer science degree.

Power Excel

Anders Ebro is an experienced presenter and he did not disappoint.  His presentation was about using Excel as a front-end tool with direct integration to the back-end database.  

Most of my Access applications integrate with Excel to export various reports and queries.  Anders went way beyond that level of integration.  As users edit certain cells in Excel, the backend data stored in SQL Server updated in realtime via the Worksheet.Change event.  He used ADO connections and SQL Server stored procedures to persist the new data with no noticeable performance hit.

He also demonstrated a technique to enforce compile-time type safety by generating class properties that corresponded to named ranges in Excel.  It's impossible for me to do his talk justice in this small amount of space.  Suffice it to say that Anders's talk was worth the price of admission to the entire conference.

One last item.  During the Q&A, someone asked Anders what his go-to tools were for working with Excel and SQL Server.  Here's his top three:

Power Automate Desktop

In the final session of the day, Ynte Jan Kuindersma presented Power Automate Desktop (PAD).  This is Microsoft's entry into the Robotic Process Automation space.  Microsoft's primary competition for PAD is UIPath.  Earlier this month, Microsoft announced that PAD is now available for free to all Windows 10 users.

Ynte described some of the history of PAD.  The software was originally created and marketed as WinAutomation by Softomotive, whom Microsoft acquired in 2020.  According to Ynte, some of the best documentation for PAD still lives under the old WinAutomation site.

After the brief history lesson, Ynte went through some of the capabilities of the program.  As TechCrunch wrote, "you can think of [Power Automate Desktop] as a macro recorder on steroids."  It supports over 350 commands, from launching applications and web browsers, to parsing JSON, downloading files from websites, bulk inserting data into databases, and much more.

Ynte finished his talk by showing several sample PAD flows to demonstrate the tool's capabilities.

Q&A Session

The day finished up with a one-hour Q&A session where the presenters came back to answer questions that they did not have time to address during their sessions.  There were also two software giveaways–the aforementioned MZ-Tools and Philipp Stieffel's Find and Replace–to the first three correct answers to a couple of MS Access trivia questions.

The conference organizers–Karl Donaubauer, Phillip Stiefel, and Peter Doering–did a great job keeping everything moving and on-schedule.