Windows 8 is never going to be a hit, but Microsoft has a killer app that will accelerate enterprise adoption and assure the long-term success of Windows 9.
Windows Apportals is an odd, not-quite-an-OS feature, not-quite-an-app tool for building custom folders of live tiles. Microsoft describes it in terms suggestive of an integrated desktop used to create a line of business application. Integrated desktops are popular tools in financial services industries and call center operations, where there is the need to streamline workflows that take place across multiple disparate back-end systems.
Apportals consist of predefined groups of grid tiles. A grid tile is nothing more than a standard Windows 8–style application icon, or tile, which is glued in place in a fixed grid format. Behind each grid tile, it is possible to link to internal or external applications or data sources. As standard Windows 8 tiles, Apportals can contain live tiles, static tiles, and snap view tiles that open links to external applications such as Internet Explorer, Outlook, and Lync. Apportals are not restricted to the Windows 8 Modern UI (aka Metro) applications. Just like a conventional live tile, an Apportal can contain any application that will run on Windows 8: i.e., standard Windows 7 desktop applications, Modern UI applications, and pinned web links. Creating your own Apportal requires a basic understanding of XML, for making the high-level structure, as well as the ability to craft SQL queries to extract and display business intelligence (BI) data. The link to BI data is where Apportals get really clever: it’s possible to change views and filter information displayed on the grid tiles without touching each application in turn. Apportals can be modified based on Active Directory group membership, displaying only those grid tiles that are applicable for job functions. Filtering is interactive; swiping in from the right side of the Apportal screen brings up a list of filters that can be selected and automatically applied to each grid tile and the application behind it.
To lower the entry point for prototype development, Microsoft has released the Windows Apportal Prototype Generator tool, which simplifies the creation of a demonstration Apportal from a series of standard templates. These prototypes offer only limited functionality and are not portable, but they do a good job of showing how a Modern UI–based BI app would look. Using this tool, it’s possible to incorporate custom SQL queries to quickly create a working prototype before committing resources to develop fully functional systems.
A bunch of live tiles glued to a Windows 8 page is clearly not in the same league as an integrated desktop that ties together mainframe, web, and conventional Windows applications into a single pane of glass, but it can serve as a live business intelligence summary page behind which lie full applications. When you start to look at what can be done with MS Dynamics and Excel Power View or Power Map out of the box, combined with the relative simplicity of creating your own Apportal, the possibilities for creating rich, touch-enabled BI applications that seamlessly integrate with the Modern UI experience are eye opening.
Windows Apportals is a feature of Windows 8.1. No additional cost or licensing is required to use it, although a copy of Visual Studio may come in handy. Microsoft has published a 215-page “Guide to Building a Windows Apportal,” available from Microsoft.com, which serves as an introduction to Apportals and Apportal development.
Apportals will not “fix” Windows 8’s app folder problem, but to be fair, it isn’t meant to. Anyone expecting to be able to use Apportals as a way to have app folders on Windows 8 should wait instead for folders to appear as a native part of the OS. But if Microsoft uses it as a tool with which to create a new breed of BI applications that showcase Windows 8.1 and beyond, the company has a real opportunity to get some momentum behind Windows 9 when it arrives next spring. This, plus Microsoft’s recent commitment to creating universal apps spanning Windows and Windows Phone, suggest that Microsoft’s future on the desktop is not a bleak as some might suggest.