Microsoft’s Most Impactful Announcements At Ignite 2021

Between pre-briefs, executive Q&As and the live event, I attended around twenty hours of Ignite 2021.  Typically, Microsoft holds three focused events each year: one for developers (Build), channel partners (Inspire) and end customers (Ignite). There’s always crossover between events—end customers, of course, also involve developers and channel partners. In this column I’ll share my thoughts on what I felt were the most important announcements from the event.

Satya Nadella opens with 5 future cloud attributes

Historically, it would have been hyperbolic to claim the world had changed drastically in the span of a year. However, this is 2020 we’re talking about. The last 12 months was, of course, dominated by Covid-19 and its related upheaval. Then there was the nationwide reckoning over race, widespread social unrest on both sides of the aisle and a contentious presidential election. Here in the tech industry, a lot of the change revolved around the debate over consumer privacy and the power giant tech companies hold over society and smaller companies. 2020 was also the year that the majority of work and education was force-migrated to the cloud due to Covid lockdowns. I’ve been routinely impressed to see how tech companies tried their best to improve the situation, sometimes breaking glass along the way.  

All of this said, I thought it was quite appropriate for Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella to talk about the five attributes that will drive the next generation of innovation from the cloud:

  1. ubiquitous and decentralized computing
  2. sovereign data and ambient intelligence
  3. empowered creators and communities everywhere
  4. expanded economic opportunity for every member of the global workforce
  5. trust by design  

While I wish I could dive into each and every one of these, I wanted to at least cite them as the context for why Microsoft is announced some of these products and services at Ignite and why they are important. Let’s dive in. I want to note that senior Moor Insights & Strategy analyst Anshel Sag already covered the biggest announcement, Azure Mesh.

Teams and Microsoft 365 updates

With remote work being the new norm, powerful collaboration tools have never been more important than they’ve been this past year. One of the best around is Microsoft Teams, which got several updates at Ignite 2021. Microsoft announced the ability to put together and conduct interactive webinars in Teams, with up to 1,000 attendees, for audiences both inside and outside the host’s organization. Teams’ webinars boast features such as custom registration, host control over disabling attendee video and chat, a variety of rich presentation options and post-event reporting after the webinar concludes. Microsoft also shared that when and if a webinar swells past the 1,000 attendee cap, Teams will “seamlessly scale” up to a 10,000 person experience (view-only). Right now, Teams can even accommodate a 20,000-person webinar experience geared towards the inflated remote workforce (available through the end of 2021).

Additionally, Microsoft announced new integrations between Teams and Microsoft Dynamics 365 designed to merge collaboration with business processes. Now, users can leverage Teams from within their Dynamics 365 workspace to place calls, start or continue chats, hold meetings and collaborate, and more—all without having to switch back over to Teams. On the flip side, users can now access and share their Dynamics 365 content from within Teams, without having to switch over to Dynamics 365.

We also learned of new synergy between Dynamics 365 Marketing and Teams that Microsoft says will “turn event attendees into loyal customers” by providing real-time customer journey orchestration. Users can organize, promote and report on Teams events from inside Dynamics 365 Marketing. Attendee data and customer segments are easily exported to Dynamics 365 Marketing, helping to create more personalized “customer journeys.” Microsoft Dynamics 365 Marketing further encourages engagement through automatically drafting starter emails and allowing users to further customize attendees’ content and experiences based on their tendencies. Microsoft also revealed that its commercial Microsoft 365 E3 and E5 customers will gain access to Dynamics 365 Marketing, for six months, for free. 

I love the new synergy between Dynamics 365 and Teams as it better enables enterprises to connect with their customers in an intelligent manner.

Microsoft also announced a new feature called Microsoft Teams Connect, which enables users to share channels both inside and outside their organization. These shared channels are easily accessible through users’ primary Microsoft Teams tenant. Inside these shared workspaces, users can utilize all of the familiar Teams’ abilities—chat, meetings, collaboration, co-authoring and more. Privacy is built in, as administrators can access granular controls that restrict who can access what data. 

Next, Microsoft lifted the curtain on Microsoft PowerPoint Live in Microsoft Teams. This tool gives presenters more resources to utilize while presenting, in one unified view. Notes, meeting chats, and attendees can all be viewed along with the PowerPoint slides, giving them more material to reference and pull from while presenting. They can also use PowerPoint Live in Microsoft Teams and its “Presenter mode” to customize how viewers see the PowerPoint on the other end of things. Attendees are able to custom-tailor their PowerPoint experience by navigating slides at a pace that feels comfortable to them. Users can also make the content more accessible by using the screen reader feature. Some do the eye-roll in regards to presentations, but some (me!) only learn things visually. 

Also announced was a feature called Dynamic View, which automatically adjusts the layout of a Teams Meeting as attendees join, initiate video, or begin to speak or present. Additionally, users can now choose to have the participant gallery at the top of the window. 

In partnership with Yealink and EPOS, Microsoft also announced two new Intelligent speakers for Microsoft Teams Rooms, which are capable of identifying and telling different voices apart (for up to 10 people in a room). The speakers enable transcripts of the meeting so users can follow along and remember afterwards who had what great idea. This is great not only for those in the room, but also as a tool for those not in attendance to use to catch themselves up on what they missed. Other new Teams hardware offerings include: 

  • a video conferencing monitor from Dell (covered here)
  • a video bar from Poly which promises to evolve pre-existing monitors into advanced Teams endpoints (covered here)
  • a camera from Aver that provides flattering lighting so that users look their best during their virtual meetings

Lastly, in the realm of Microsoft 365 is a new application Microsoft calls Dynamics 365 Intelligent Order Management. This “purpose-driven supply chain solution,” as Microsoft refers to it, is intended to help the many organizations whose supply chains were overwhelmed by the growing e-commerce needs of the Covid and, likely, post-Covid era. Customers are relying more and more on digital commerce, and desire omnichannel purchasing options—from online orders, to mobile apps, traditional sources such as EDI and much more. They also expect fast delivery and strong after-purchase support. This is a tall order for businesses that got their start in brick-and-mortar environments and have been forced to either adapt or fall by the wayside. This new offering claims help this, by managing an order’s entire lifecycle, beginning with intake, all the way to delivery. This includes online orders for in-store and curbside pickup, which have also become very popular during the pandemic. 

Dynamics 365 Intelligent Order Management performs numerous actions for businesses. It can utilize AI to decide upon the best method for fulfilling an order, based on current inventory, and game out potential implications of the options available. On a similar note, it provides businesses with real-time, global inventory visibility that the app’s fulfillment orchestration engine leverages to main stock levels and optimize fulfillment.

The combination of Microsoft 365, Teams and Dynamics 365 is proving to be a powerful enterprise combination for improved workflow and informed collaboration. 

Power Platform updates

Microsoft’s Power Platform is a unique offering that enables businesses to build enterprise-grade apps and automate business processes without having professional developers on staff. In Microsoft’s ongoing mission to democratize app development and automation and fill the global drought of developer resources, it unveiled a handful of updates to Power Platform that promise to make it even more user friendly. First, the company announced the availability of Microsoft Power Automate Desktop, free of charge, to all Windows 10 users. Power Automate Desktop is an offering that brings Power Automate’s low-code RPA automation capabilities to on-prem and local desktop environments. With it, users can automate tasks in frequently-used applications such as Outlook, Excel, OneNote, SharePoint and more. It’s safe to say that Microsoft will soon be the most widely adopted enterprise RPA on the planet.

Next, Microsoft unveiled Microsoft Power Fx, an open-source language based off of Microsoft Excel which the company says will enable users to express logic without the coding skills that were traditionally necessary to do so. This is a very clever move, in my opinion, given how many people already are familiar with Excel. While Microsoft has demonstrated a clear commitment to open source in C# and Typescript languages, Power Fx seeks to be a modern and open low-code language for citizen app developers. Starting as Power Apps’ formula language, Microsoft says it has plans to expand across Dataverse, Power Virtual Agents and Power Automate. I expect at a future time Microsoft to roll out partners for this low-code language as its success likely hinges upon it.

Microsoft also announced the upcoming general availability of Power BI Premium, an upgrade from the basic Power BI offering. Power BI Premium helps businesses analyze and visualize data utilizing AI (like the classic Power BI) but adds in the ability to create end-to-end data platforms with simple drag and drops. Power Premium BI Per User will be released into generally available on April 2nd. I think this is a good upsell for those looking for the next level of capability. Power BI is inexpensive and very capable and Premium adds more features without breaking the bank.

Azure updates

The last section of news we’ll cover is a round of updates for Microsoft Azure. The biggest announcement was the unveiling of Azure Percept, a new portfolio of hardware and services designed to enable AI-driven, real-time insights at the edge (or anywhere without an Internet connection). Now in public preview, Azure Percept includes a development kit with Azure Percept Vision, with an intelligent camera, and Azure Percept Audio (which ships separately). This makes sense as a starting place given vision and audio are the most common AI workloads. As with Power Platform, the goal of Azure Percept is democratic in nature—it seeks to enable businesses to take advantage of intelligence at the edge without requiring any engineering or data science skills.

Microsoft says it is working with a number of 3rd party silicon and equipment makers to build out the Azure Percept ecosystem with more devices, for other applications. Azure Percept devices will be able to automatically connect to an Azure IoT Hub, enabling secure communication between IoT, edge devices and the cloud. Microsoft says all AI prototypes built with the development kit will be able to run on an Azure Percept-certified device with no additional work needed on the developer’s end. I really like the solution Azure Percept is providing as it’s not only a service, but edge hardware and software. I also like that Microsoft is building out a platform that others can monetize, too, the hardware providers. 

Since the platform runs on Azure, it has access to the same security protections already baked into Microsoft’s cloud. This is important as you get farther out on the edge, you have even more vulnerabilities than you do in a hardened, Azure datacenter. Physical security is the most different as on the edge, you can literally use a crowbar and walk away with an edge device. 

As important, Microsoft says all components of the platform have been thoroughly vetted by an internal assessment team to ensure compliance with the company’s principles for responsible AI usage. This is crucial as we are talking about seeing and hearing edge devices. 

Wrapping up

Believe it or not, this was only a small fraction of the news to come out of Microsoft Ignite this year—these were just the announcements that stuck out to me the most, from the Microsoft offerings I tend to cover the ones I believe have the most impact. As I noted above, senior Moor Insights & Strategy analyst Anshel Sag already covered the biggest announcement, Azure Mesh

What’s clear from the event is that Microsoft continues its efforts to democratize advanced, next-gen technology with its user-friendly yet powerful offerings. With businesses around the world racing to adapt, digitize and transform, Microsoft’s efforts couldn’t come at a better time. 

Note: Moor Insights & Strategy writers and editors may have contributed to this article.