Recently we have been asked by multiple customers whether PowerApps, part of the Microsoft Power Platform represents a replacement for Microsoft Access. Whilst we can understand where the question is coming from, our answer is ‘not really’. Microsoft has put PowerApps forward as a tool to produce desktop and mobile applications without code in a manner that is easy and quick for ‘power users’ to learn and use. This sounds alot like what we used to do with MS Access, but when we start to break it down we can see there are some fundamental differences. These differences also happen to be important for customers to consider as they approach PowerApps.
Before we look at the differences let’s first familiarise with some similarities:
- Both tools are aimed at enabling small apps to be created by users
- Both tools provide means of designing and displaying forms and screens for data entry and data display
- Both tools exist as part of the Microsoft Office family of products and are available with most Office 365 subscriptions
- Both tools can be used to create solutions that drive business process
- Both tools can be exposed to multiple users internally
We encounter organisations frequently who are still reliant on MS Access solutions built years ago for either core business activities or as supporting apps at the business unit or team level. In many cases the solution was arguably fit for purpose, however over time has become aged, difficult to maintain, unscalable and generally unreliable. These conditions are a great excuse to highlight key differences between MS Access and PowerApps.
- Access stores data within its own database file, PowerApps does not and is designed to work across other data sources.
- Access is a file-based solution available to users only at the desktop or via a network share. PowerApps is entirely web-based within Office 365 and accessible from desktop, non-desktop and anywhere there’s an internet connection.
- Access, while supporting multiple users was never designed to scale in this regard. PowerApps is built to support access by everyone in your organisation.
- Business logic in Access is largely driven by code. PowerApps follows a ‘declarative’ model driven entirely through formulas.
- Process automation in Access typically requires monolithic approaches, again using code. PowerApps leverages Microsoft Flow, a companion Office 365 service, to drive process, data integration, notifications and other operations. Microsoft Flow imparts a more distributed model for defining automation components.
- Security controls in Access are limited. PowerApps security is based on Office 365 user security and additional policy configuration.
- Access requires the software to be installed on the user’s machine. PowerApps only requires a client install on mobile devices.
- Access includes its own framework for designing reports. PowerApps leverages the reporting and dashboarding features of Power BI, which can be embedded or linked to.
Ultimately, MS Access is a desktop database tool with extra features to address forms, logic and reports. While we have always had the utmost respect for its value and utility, PowerApps represents the beginning of a new way to empower users and create modern, connected and centrally administered apps that are accessible across devices. And while PowerApps certainly is usable by power users to solve some problems at the desktop, it can go far beyond where MS Access used to take us when combined with Microsoft Flow, Power BI and an experienced approach.