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Scribble to app: Microsoft's Power Apps VP talks us through 'Express design'

Recognizing your doodles and building some software – or that's the idea

Interview "We implemented this as an 'AI+human' experience," said Ryan Cunningham, VP of Power Apps, "and not 'AI does it 100 percent for you' experience."

He was speaking about Power Apps, Microsoft's graphical software for creating low code applications, which is previewing a new feature called "Express design" that recognizes your scribbles.

The thinking is that as a human tells the tools what's what, the AI gets trained over time.

The vendor was keen to show off the new development at its Build event last week, where the rest of the Power Platform cloud services set was also on show, including Power Automate, which is used to implement business workflows, and Power BI, a handy visualizer.

The Reg tests Power Apps preview

When it comes to Power Apps, if you're reminded of Visual Basic or Delphi from the 1990s, you're on the right track. Azure subscription aside (more on that later), the speed at which a relatively inexperienced user can knock together something functional in Power Apps calls to mind these tools of yesteryear.

We took the preview for a spin (after a slightly frustrating time ensuring we had the correct subscription to Azure) and were immediately struck by a sense of déjà vu. It seemed remarkably similar to the Azure Form Recognizer, a service designed to yank data from scanned documents.

Speaking to The Register, Cunningham acknowledged the similarity. "Under the hood... Azure Cognitive Services are running under Express design, like they are already in AI builder," the Power Apps VP told us.

"Before this point, you could train a form recognition model to recognize forms that you scan or came into an email inbox and automate processes based on the stream. This uses some of that same tech, but makes it possible to actually replace the form with an application."

It's certainly neat. We doodled some forms and Express design produced functional apps after a little additional tweaking (pretty much everything was a label or textbox as far as the preview of Express design was concerned). Popping in screenshots of an old Visual Basic form was more successful.

In answer to concerns over privacy (and we're not sure anyone needs to know what our hamfisted attempts at drawing a listbox look like), Cunningham said: "It anonymizes the model for recognizing common applications."

"It's sort of saying, 'Hey, users tend to tag images that look like this as combo boxes,' and that model we've already trained on a number of examples, but it continues to get better the more it's trained."

Microsoft reckons the approach, "even if it doesn't get 100 percent of hand-drawn sketches 100 percent right all of the time," is a huge time-saver, particularly for low-code fans presented with a blank canvas. It will also import prototypes from the likes of Figma.

It all makes for some great keynotes and glossy videos. However, there is always more going on behind the scenes once a form has been recognized and a stab made at the data structure behind it.

"It's not magic," said Cunningham, "if you still have to make some decisions about logic: 'What happens when I click that button?'

"We can take care of making sure the record gets written into the database for you, but you need to then decide what happens next."

Clouds, governance and sovereignty

Unlike the corporate apps of old, Power Apps continues to be cloud-based. It can't even be run on Azure Stack, although customers keen to keep their data on-premises can connect via a gateway. "There's absolutely regional residency," Cunningham said.

"If I am working in the EU, and I create a Power Apps environment in the EU, all the data stays resident and even stays resident in my country."

However, there is no escaping the shift to a subscription model inherent in the Power Platform. Cunningham highlighted the gangbusters growth of the platform to a multibillion-dollar business for Microsoft and the appeal of the cloud model to corporates (many of which are already shelling out for the likes of Office 365).

"We have customers with thousands of Power Apps inside their organization," he said. "So for them, it just becomes part of the kit for a modern worker.

"And it has the benefit of governance and extensibility on top of the old model of something that sat on a desktop and was really difficult to address."

That said, many enterprises have that one weird app that sits in a beige box under the desk, performing a business-critical application for decades. Indeed, even the most recent version of Windows still contains components on which those legacy apps depend. While Cunningham boasts of still-working apps written in 2016, Microsoft will still "transition customers to modern bits that are better for them."

"This is a problem for all software," he said. "When they're building it on the Power Platform, they're actually trusting Microsoft and the bet we have in the platform to keep that underlying infrastructure modern over the course of a long period of time.

"How do you maintain a healthy lifecycle of an application over its lifespan, whether that lifespan is six months or six years? So we take a pretty holistic approach to that in the platform."

Cunningham was one of the brains behind ClipCard, a service that was all about connecting multiple cloud data sources. In many ways, the Power Platform does a similar thing (and features 700 connectors to other platforms).

"That early startup effort was really just about searching and finding and seek bits of information," said Cunningham. "Power Platform is about getting much more active in that environment, being able to build new processes, automate processes, build intelligence. So it really just takes it to a whole other level of usefulness."

That is: as long as you have that Azure subscription. And as long as your sketching skills meet with the approval of the preview of Express design. ®

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