Conference season is in full swing and last week I attended Microsoft Build 2019 in Seattle to hear the latest on what the tech giant has in store for its developer community. I attended the big tent stage announcements, met with many executives at the company, and heard from its best customers. The conference is always enlightening, and I make a point of attending every year—see my coverage from last year’s developer conference here and here.
Nadella sets the stage for the Big Four
Satya Nadella kicked off the event by encouraging people to focus less on the tech and more about the people. I thought this was a great opening note, and it reaffirms the company priorities of trust, privacy, cybersecurity, and responsible AI. And it’s in alignment with Nadella’s platform. Nadella then reaffirmed its four key platforms: Microsoft Dynamics and Power Platform, Microsoft 365, Microsoft Gaming, and Microsoft Azure. This is the way to look at Microsoft now.
Let’s dive into the news so far from last week. Given the focus was Microsoft 365, I will spend more time on that.
New features and capabilities for Microsoft 365
Microsoft announced a handful of updates to Microsoft 365, what the company calls its “productivity cloud.” Before I jump into the announcements, I wanted to comment on how Microsoft laid out the M365 opportunity and how the company looks at it. I am a visual learner and if you are, this graphics sums up the opportunity nicely.
Microsoft 365 all starts on an identity layer that enables single sign on and even a password-less experience across the platform. It was interesting that Apple was brought up as a major user of this layer. Above the identity layer is the Microsoft Graph, a layer of company data that provides context across all the companies apps and devices. This is where all the data of record is stored and protected, enabling anything like AI and collaboration. Also, of note in the diagram above is that M365 is cross-platform (web/native/hybrid) and multi-device and OS (Windows/iOS/Android/MacOS). I am unaware of any productivity graph that even touches the developer opportunity than M365.
OK, now let’s dive into some specific announcements. One that really caught my eye was an impressive-looking new web-based Office 365 platform and componentized document model it calls Fluid Framework. Fluid Framework is geared towards enabling app creation, giving developers what Microsoft calls a “free-flowing canvas” for multi-person collaboration. Fluid Framework allows smart agents to aid in creation, by fetching content, providing suggestions, doing real-time translations, whatever API can be tapped into. In my opinion, Fluid Framework looks almost too cool to be true. It is like web OLE on steroids, enabling live objects across all browsers and browser apps—even Chrome.
Microsoft also announced the general availability of Microsoft Graph data connect, a service that will allow organizations to utilize Azure Data Factory to securely bring together their own data, at scale, and Microsoft Graph’s productivity data to drive insights. This is a really big deal as you can imagine what a company could do my meshing its MS Graph data with data from everywhere else in the enterprise. Watch this Talentsoft + Dior video to get an idea what it can do. The new service is available both in Workplace Analytics, and as a standalone SKU.
Also, the new, Chromium-based Microsoft Edge received some new feature announcements at the conference. These include:
- IE mode, which enables businesses to run their home-grown Internet Explore-based apps in a modern browser. This means businesses will only need to run one browser, not two, simplifying the experience.
- three-tiered and simple privacy control settings (Unrestricted, Balanced, Strict) restricting third party tracking
- Collections, an almost “too-good-to-be-true” feature which enables users to more efficiently gather, organize, and share content, with Office integration. I thought the example showed on-stage was great. Imagine shopping for an electronics device like a camera and you are going to different sites comparing and contrasting products. When you see something interesting, you click it, drag and drop on the left hand “Collections” rail. Once you have the data, you can export it to Excel which creates a table with variable comparisons like features, price, and website. Too good to be true? We’ll see.
I’ll definitely be giving Microsoft Edge another shot as my primary browser with the addition of these features. It looks strong in terms of privacy and cross-platform, and Chromium should fix the previous compatibility issues for myself and millions of others. Edge was a good browser, but if users or enterprises had one key app that wasn’t compatible, it was a deal-killer.
Microsoft also announced at the event that it was incorporating new conversational AI capabilities (which it got from its acquisition of Semantic Machines in 2019) into Cortana and all of its other conversational AI tools and products. If you’ve ever used an intelligent assistant, you’ve probably noticed that while they can be instructed to perform specific functions, like adding a calendar item, attempts at back-and-forth dialogue typically break down pretty quick.
While historically these assistants have been limited to the scenarios programmers are able to anticipate and pre-script, Semantic Machines’ technology promises to enable smart assistants to learn on their own how to perform new functions and mix and match previously learned things to handle new situations. Additionally, this technology brings “full duplex capability” to Cortana—basically, the ability to talk and listen at the same time and keep the conversation flowing more naturally. Cortana will now be able to contextualize interactions with whatever conversation came before. Some may say the intelligent game is over and Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa “won”. This is naïve as it’s very early in the game and not all assistants do great at the same things. Productivity agents of the future must be “multi-turn” (in context), will be specialized (by vocation), must work with other agents easily and naturally and must have secure and trusted repositories to store data. We aren’t there yet as an industry.
Another update worth noting was the new ability to create focus plans through Microsoft 365’s MyAnalytics. Basically, MyAnalytics will help users develop daily focus plans, in which they block off regular chunks of time to focus on, say, more challenging or pressing work. A cool feature of this is that Microsoft Teams will automatically toggle to “Do Not Disturb” during these set aside focus times, in order to avoid interruptions and maximize user productivity. Microsoft says focus plans are the first in a series of updates coming soon to MyAnalytics to help users set goals and improve work habits. One data point that stuck out for me was that it takes 25 minutes to get back in focus after an interruption. When you think about all the smartphone, PC, phone, notifications, you wonder how anyone can get any work done. For Microsoft to pull this off, they’ll need to better tap into the smartphone as this is the source of most interruptions. I saw nothing on-stage related to the “Your Phone” app as if it didn’t exist.
On the Azure front
While M365 was the star of BUILD 2019, Azure, is of course a strategic platform and many of its announcements came out last week.
Satya Nadella called Azure “the world’s computer”—one that is open, global, compliant, and extends to the edge. When Nadella said this, I couldn’t help thinking this is the way mainframe companies referred to their capabilities in the 50’s. I’m sure that was not the intent.
The conference showcased several new features for Azure Kubernetes Service (AKS). These include Kubernetes Event-driven Autoscaling, or KEDA, an open-source component created in collaboration with Red Hat to support deployment of serverless event-driven containers on Kubernetes. Additionally, Microsoft introduced Azure Policy for AKS, which implements at-scale enforcements to protect AKS clusters.
Microsoft also announced at the event that it is bringing its Azure Active Directory to GitHub, which it says will give GitHub Enterprise customers Azure AD identity management and security. Additionally, developers will now be able to sign into Azure using their existing GitHub account. As my colleague Rhett Dillingham noted, Microsoft’s strategy is to encourage GitHub developers to prefer Azure. It’s a smart move.
The last Azure-related announcement was a new Hyperscale (Citus) option in Azure Database for PostgreSQL. Microsoft says this new option will allow help developers build scalable, low-latency apps utilizing their existing skills. Microsoft is quick to point out that Azure is the only cloud option that allows developers to scale across both proprietary and open source engines. This is definitely a positive differentiator in my book.
A common theme at the conference is Microsoft’s continued embrace of open source technology and tools for developers. On that note, Microsoft also announced it was open sourcing its Q# compilers and simulators (Quantum is Microsoft’s initiative to create a scalable quantum computer). The company hopes this move will allow the Q# community to grow and open up new opportunities for businesses.
There was plenty to chew on at Microsoft Build 2019, and I came away impressed with the amount of new features and updates Microsoft announced for Microsoft 365 and Azure. I found the new Microsoft Edge browser and the Fluid Framework tool for developers particularly compelling, and I’m excited to learn more. Microsoft continues to embrace AI and open source technology, and its offerings are better for it. Microsoft distinguished itself as a premier platform for business developers- cross platform, cross OS, cross device, tools to integrate other corporate data and access to the Microsoft Graph and a planet-scale cloud.
Note: Moor Insights & Strategy writers and editors may have contributed to this article.