Last week was a busy one for tech industry analysts—I started out at Dell EMC World in Las Vegas, attended Microsoft Build 2017 in Seattle and then went back to Dell EMC World. Build is Microsoft’s annual developer conference, targeted at the software, services and hardware developer community. I attend the event every year as it provides industry and of course, Microsoft guidance. Build is chock full of announcements, and many of the important ones are showcased during the conference keynotes. Here’s my rundown of the bigger stories coming out of Day 1 and 2 of the conference, and my take on them. Note that our senior cloud analyst Rhett Dillingham is covering all Azure-cloud related news from the event, so I’ll be skipping over most of those announcements in my analysis here.
Satya Nadella’s introduction
As is customary at these big industry events, the keynote was kicked off by CEO Satya Nadella. He started off by waxing nostalgic about the early days of Microsoft, cracking a joke about the inverse relationship between his own hairline and the amount of computing power of Microsoft. Nadella always has a way of pulling these jokes like few others in the industry. I did see pictures of Nadella when he had hair and I’m feeling pretty good about my receded hairline. Nadella emphasized that with the increase of data over the past several years, the ability for developers to make a lasting impact has never been greater. He is absolutely right when you look at machine learning, IoT, and the cloud.
Microsoft can stand on its bully pulpit here because, unlike, Google and Facebook, Microsoft’s prime objective is not building personal profiles to improve advertising or creating new advertising platforms. It’s a purer story for businesses.
Microsoft has been a little quieter than some companies in regard to IoT and exposed many good examples at its Digital Difference event I attended last month. IoT is a challenging prospect for everyone as it’s an amalgamation of so many different things that have to go right for a good business and technical outcome. Nadella introduced Sam George, Partner Director of Azure Internet of Things, to talk a bit about Sandvik Coromant, a Swedish industrial automation company that is currently running the new Azure IoT Edge platform. Azure IoT Edge was designed to deliver cloud capabilities such as advanced analytics, machine learning and AI to IoT devices on the edge. Microsoft claims that this gives businesses the best of both worlds by allowing devices to act locally with the data they generate out on the edge, while simultaneously being able to take advantage of the cloud when it comes to configuration, deployment, and management. I like the sound of this and this is what companies want, but I need to do the deep double-click to examine it more closely. Another interesting aspect to this is that Azure IoT Edge can still operate with offline and intermittent connectivity—syncing back with the bigger cloud once reconnected. This is an IoT reality that persistent connectivity cannot ever be guaranteed and glad to see Microsoft supporting the sync feature. It’s harder than you might think to sync.
Nadella took the stage again to showcase his vision of a futuristic, safe, IoT driven workplace—utilizing the new Azure IoT Edge (in conjunction with the storage and computation of Azure Stack), to power cognitive functions that reduce workplace accidents. In a demonstration by Andrea Carl, Director of Commercial Communications, we saw how site managers could potentially use functions like Computer Vision with commodity cameras to perform a variety of tasks: identifying potential workplace hazards before someone gets hurt, locating tools within a construction site, making sure only properly trained workers are using dangerous power tools. Though these smart workplaces haven’t quite taken over yet, the technology is there, and I think we’re going to see a lot more of this in the years to come. I have to say, the light bulbs went off in my head regarding privacy.
Enterprises will need to very closely assess which companies they can trust and secure monitoring their employees and physical assets.
I was so struck at the huge demo differences between Microsoft at Build and Facebook F8. Facebook’s video AI parser took a video, identifies every object and context and talked about how great it is for ads and profiles. Microsoft was talking about workplace safety.
Driving productivity and innovation in the office workplace
Also announced on Day 1 was a number of new developer on-ramps designed to better connect developers with Office 365 customers. Office 365 has been a huge market success and I think more journalists should experience it. Office along with iTunes was my least favorite Windows app a decade ago and now O365 is one of my favorite.
Microsoft announced that new Microsoft Graph APIs would now be available to developers. Microsoft Graph is a tool that grants developers access to Office 365 and other Microsoft cloud service data, in order to, in Microsoft’s words, “better connect the dots” between people, projects, schedules, conversations, and content. One of the new offerings demonstrated during the keynote was the Presentation Translator add-in—enabling presenters to add subtitles to their PowerPoint presentations in real time—in either the same language, or translated into different languages. I saw this demo for myself live on Day 0 and was truly amazed. It was also announced the SharePoint site, OneNote, and Planner data APIs would now be generally available to developers, for use in apps and services. All this API talk means that ISVs enterprise developers can build custom apps that feed from or add to these Microsoft apps. In addition, Microsoft’s new Insights APIs will help develop smarter processes by processing relationships between users and data, and the company is also expanding its portfolio of webhooks so that it will now include user and group changes.
New kinds of workflows come to mind, and while Microsoft didn’t bring it up, you could automate many tasks, legacy and new with these new tools.
Updates to AI portfolio
Because every huge technology company needs to relate to AI, it was Microsoft’s turn. That may sound dark, but many companies, like they did with “cloud-washing” are doing the same thing with AI. The good thing is that Microsoft is really bringing the goods and is a leader in AI and if you recall, at last Build, Microsoft kicked off the AI and chatbot craze. Now it was time to talk about what worked what didn’t and where Microsoft is headed in the future.
Seriously, a non-customizable AI “anything” isn’t of much use.
Microsoft also announced on Day 1 the launch of new adaptive cards for the Microsoft Bot Framework, which it says will allow developers to write cards only once, and have them look good across multiple apps and platforms without having to modify. This framework will also give developers more flexibility, by allowing them to publish to channels like Bing, Cortana, and Skype for Business. On that note, the Cortana Skills Kit is now officially in public preview, which will allow developers to create new skills for Cortana (via bots), and then publish it to the Bot Framework. These are big improvements and the only thing I wish Microsoft would have done is to give some context of where bots are working, where they aren’t. Facebook did a good bot mea culpa at F8.
I think that if you don’t recognize Microsoft as an AI leader by this point, then you’re uninformed.
The company has tons of commercial grade APIs, services, scale, experience and they’re customizable to boot. It’s time for people to start really paying attention to what Microsoft is doing in this area.
Overall, Build Day 1’s focus on Azure, IoT and AI was a nice setup for Day 2.
Announcing the Windows 10 “Fall” Creators Update
Day 2 of Microsoft Build brought a whole other raft of important announcements, centered predominantly around Windows 10. Last October, Microsoft announced the Creators Update for Windows 10, which I blogged abouthere. I thought the original update was a move in the right direction—reflective of PC differentiation, while including elements I think consumers are interested in right now despite being hard to execute (3D creation, for example). On Day 2 of Build, Microsoft announced a whole new line of innovations entitled the Windows 10 Fall Creators Update—coming later this year.
Streamlining cross-device experience with Microsoft Fluent Design System
Microsoft announced the launch of its Fluent Design System, which promises to deliver, in the words of Terry Myerson (Executive Vice President of Windows and Devices Group) an “intuitive, harmonious, responsive, and inclusive cross-device experience.” This is a real mouthful but I urge you to go word by word and it’ll make sense. I see fluent design as incorporating all ways of interaction (mouse, ink, touch, gesture, gaze) and platform (PC, tablet, phone,TV). Using this new system, in conjunction with the intelligent fabric of Microsoft Graph, Microsoft is trying to make it easier to move Windows experiences with you as you traverse Windows, iOS and Android platforms.
The company introduced several new features with that goal in mind. First, Timeline, which the company says will allows users to easily jump to anywhere on a visual timeline of their activity—to find what they were working on at that specific moment in time. I like Timeline because it works the way I work– all over the place. Multiple apps, multiple devices, multiple OS, and many red bulls–I’m glad there’s finally a product tailored to that lifestyle. The next feature is called Pick Up Where You Left Off, which Microsoft claims will—you guessed it—allow users to pick up where they left off, across their Windows, iOS or Android devices. For example: maybe you were editing a spreadsheet or some other document on your PC, and you had to run out the door to catch a bus—when you open up your smartphone, Cortana would ask if you’d like to “pick up where you left off,” and you could continue to work on your project. Workaholics across the world, rejoice.
Wrapping this section up, I think focusing on these cross-device experiences is a smart move—the modern person has a lot of difference devices and platforms they rely on throughout the day, and it sounds like the new Fluent Design System and these new Microsoft Graph features have the potential to really help simplify and streamline user experience, and enable productivity.
Expanding the Windows Store
At the Microsoft Education event a few weeks ago, the company unveiled the new Windows 10 S edition (which I subsequently blogged about here). Windows 10 S comes with a new focus on apps—making it easier for apps to be built, tested, and published to any platform, via the Windows Store. At Day 2, Microsoft announced an expansion to the Windows Store’s offerings with the update later this year.
Microsoft announced a new creative app called Windows Story Remix. Built on .NET, Windows Story Remix uses Microsoft Graph to automatically bring together photos, video, and other content from you and your friends’ library, and compile it with soundtracks, themes, and transitions. It will be available through the Windows Store. In addition, users will be able to add Mixed Reality content to their photos and videos, and/or doodle on them using Windows Ink. We got to see a demonstration of Story Remix, in which Microsoft exec Lorraine Bardeen edited a video by superimposed a fireball on top of a moving soccer ball– it was frankly incredible.
If Story Remix works even 75% as well in real life, I would call it a win for Microsoft.
Last fall’s Creators Update announcement came with a lot of talk about opening up 3D and MR creativity to the masses—this looks to be a nice update to that mission. This to me is strategically about giving users more reasons to use OneDrive and Pen.
There were also several announcements made in the realm of Mixed Reality. First, Microsoft is really trying to put MR in the ends of developers, with the launch of the Windows Mixed Reality dev kit. Microsoft also announced that developers can now pre-order either an Acer or HP headset from the Microsoft Store, to be delivered later this summer. I think this is all great—in order to speed up the adoption of MR technology, it’s important to build out the ecosystem as much as possible. Opening it up to developers should do precisely that.
The other big MR announcement was the unveiling of Microsoft’s first Windows Mixed Reality motion controllers. These motion controllers don’t require any markers, and Microsoft claims they will deliver precise and responsive tracking of movement, using sensors in your headset. The new controllers are said to offer 6 degrees of freedom, which is a big deal– AR and VR stink without 6DoF when using a headset. These new motion controllers are all about making the experience smoother, and more immersive—the technology still has a long way to go, but with new offerings like this, we’re seeing some awesome improvement.
Calling all developers
Another theme from Day 2 was making Windows a more welcoming space for developers. Microsoft announced they would be modernizing and simplifying its code base with the launch of .NET Standard 2.0 for UWP and XAML Standard later this year. Microsoft also announced that Project Rome will enable developers to leverage Windows and Microsoft Graph across UWP, Android, and iOS .
Another new addition to Microsoft’s developer portfolio is the Xamarin Live Player. This tool should add some nice flexibility for developers, by allowing them to build, test and debug iPhone apps via their Windows PCs. Microsoft claims that with Xamarin Live Player and Visual Studio, developers can build native iOS apps in a matter of minutes—pretty impressive. The uncommunicated big point here is that you no longer need Macs and can use Windows PCs to develop iOS apps.
This announcement got probably the biggest claps and points out just how cross-OS Microsoft really is.
Last but not least, we got a glimpse at Narrator in Debug Mode, which will allow developers to create more inclusive apps for those with disabilities. This is obviously a good thing, and builds on the premise that everyone deserves equal access to technology.
There was plenty for us analysts to sink our teeth from both days of Microsoft Build. Microsoft is doing a lot of cutting edge stuff, when it comes to bringing Azure capabilities out to IoT devices on the edge, and I’m excited to see what doors these new capabilities end up opening. Strategically, I felt this was Microsoft’s real coming out part on the edge. Sure, they had some announcements before this, but this was where it all came together. I think we’re going to see some really exciting stuff, not just in the realms of construction and manufacturing where we often see IoT demonstrated.
Microsoft continues to be a leader if not the leader in workplace productivity, through its continuous updates and improvements to Teams and the rest of the Office 365 portfolio, and in my mind, the company has also pretty well solidified its place as a leader in the realm of commercial AI and cognitive services. Day 2 introduced us to the Fall Creators Update, and the veritable smorgasbord of apps and features it will bring to the table later this year. Microsoft truly invoked classic “embrace and extend” by rolling out a slew of features and tools to connect different devices (phone, tablet, PC, MR HMD, TV) with different OSs (Windows, iOS, Android) with different UIs (keyboard, mouse, touch, pen, and gaze). I’m excited about the new MR offerings—it seems like Microsoft is making good headway on its promise to bring affordable MR to everyone. It’s also great to see the Windows Store expanding, and how much more friendly Microsoft is making its ecosystem to developers. This concludes my rundown of Microsoft Build 2017—it was a long haul, but I hope it was informative. I look forward to seeing what Microsoft does next—I’ll continue to monitor the rollout of the Fall Creators Update later this year for follow-up.