Microsoft Quickly Updates Services Portfolio In Response To COVID-19

By Patrick Moorhead - May 21, 2020

One thing that has been fascinating for me as a tech analyst during the COVID-19 crisis is all the ways the tech industry is stepping up to cope with the fallout. With unprecedented amounts of people working, schooling and virtually socializing from home, many of the companies I cover have updated their offerings, consumption models, financing, and more, in order to better handle the demands placed on people, businesses and infrastructure.

According to Brad Anderson, Microsoft’s Corporate Vice President for Microsoft 365, his organization’s IT department has been putting in 100-hour work weeks to deal with the new realities. And now, we know in part what they were working on. Last week Microsoft unveiled a slew of updates to its portfolio designed to improve collaboration and virtual meetings, the provisioning and management of remote devices, out-of-network data security and compliance, the ability to quickly develop new business apps, and the ability to address COVID-related developments. Let’s take a look at what the tech powerhouse unveiled.

Figure 1:Teams now allows 9 simultaneous video streams

First, let’s talk about the enhancements coming to Microsoft’s immensely popular Teams collaboration tool. In the company’s recent earnings report, Microsoft shared that last month it saw over 200 million Teams meeting attendees in one day, accounting for over than 4.1B meeting minutes. Furthermore, the tool now boasts over 75 million daily active users. In response to increased usage, the company announced it is rolling out an increase in the total number of simultaneous videos possible in Teams meetings—from 4 to 9. Microsoft says Teams’ meeting stage is optimized for attendees with video enabled, while audio-only participants are featured below the stage (see Fig. 1). In order to ensure audio and video quality, Microsoft says Teams’ layout will adapt to accommodate user bandwidth, such as reducing video streams to optimize the meeting experience. Microsoft is also introducing a “raise hands” feature to Teams, which lets participants indicate when they wish to speak via a raise of their hand and be added to a list that gives priority to whomever raised their hand first. This looks like a great feature with the potential to make these virtual meetings feel more organic and natural.

Additionally, Microsoft says it’s adding more background effect options to obscure users’ surroundings, including a forthcoming update that will allow people to upload custom backgrounds. These will join Teams’ current background blur feature, which the company says has been very popular since it was rolled out. For that matter, Microsoft announced it is also bringing the Background Blur feature to iOS, so that it can be activated on iPhones and iPads. Nobody will have to know you’re taking the call on the golf course. Additionally, Microsoft’s live captions feature will now be available for iOS and Android mobile devices (English only for now). I have used the background features for a few weeks and love them.

For Microsoft 365 live events, the company announced it would temporarily be raising its default attendee limits on Team, Stream, and Yammer meetings. Through the first of July, they will accommodate up to 20,000 attendees, with a maximum event length of 16 hours per broadcast, and a tenant will be able to host 50 events simultaneously. Microsoft also announced it was bringing the ability to share system audio to Teams live events, via screen share (but only for the presenter and producers—no audio “Zoombombing”). The last user feature unveiled for Teams is a new ability for meeting organizers to end the meeting for everyone involved with a single push of the button.

Microsoft also unveiled a handful of new IT administrator features for Teams, including a new Meetings dashboard in the Teams admin center capable of performing analytics and providing insights into usage, meeting details, network health, and more. Microsoft also says a call record API will soon be available in the Meetings dashboard. Additional admin controls include the ability for administrators to assign a batch policy to large groups of users, a new default lobby setting for external users, to make sure that only the people who are supposed to be there are in attendance (Zoom, take note), and more. For the sake of brevity we must move on, but you can learn more at Microsoft’s blog here.

Streamlining Windows Virtual Desktop and Azure for the age of corona

Virtualization is another trend that has gained momentum during the current crisis, as enterprises seek to empower their workers to work remotely and securely. Many enterprises I have talked to used remote desktop or VDI or app streaming to very quickly get mission-critical apps available and secured for use at home. To that end, the company announced several new enhancements to its Windows Virtual Desktop solution. Microsoft has integrated a new management experience into the Azure Portal, which allows users to manage applications and desktops, set up host pools, and assign users. Additionally, Microsoft now gives users a choice of where they wish to keep their service data, in order to better jive with their regulatory and compliance needs. The company says service metadata can be distributed across Azure regions in U.S. and Europe which is important for search, with more options forthcoming. Lastly for Windows Virtual Desktop, Microsoft announced it will be bringing A/V redirection to those using Teams via Windows Virtual Desktop. This, Microsoft says, will enhance the video and audio experience by forging a direct path between users.

In the interest of improving endpoint security and management, Microsoft announced that users will now be able to use Azure Active Directory (Azure AD) single sign-on with as many cloud apps as desired, even with the free version of Azure AD. Azure AD enables users to locate and access apps, without compromising security, from anywhere. In other words, users can connect all of their cloud apps to Azure ID and sign into all of them with a single sign-on. Furthermore, users can safeguard this access with multi-factor authentication as a default, for free. To read about additional new Azure AD features, see Microsoft’s blog here.

Microsoft says it also has done some work to better integrate its Configuration Manager and Microsoft Endpoint Manager admin center within Azure. Microsoft Endpoint Manager helps employees securely access data and services from virtually any device. Additional new features include tenant attach, which enables admins to affix an Intune tenant to their Configuration Manager deployment so that they can work together, support for Microsoft Edge, so that users can deploy apps and packages across platforms, unified app delivery, which consolidates Configuration Manager’s Software Center and Azure AD’s MyApps into Microsoft’s Company Portal app (though the two can still be used separately), a new Intune MDM agent for macOS configuration, and lastly, the ability to protect Outlook mobile from malicious cross-account sharing, by restricting your organization’s Outlook account to approved storage locations.

Data governance is key

In a world where more and more people are working remotely, magnified significantly by the current pandemic, and where cybercrime is a real, rapidly evolving threat, data governance becomes incredibly important. To address this, Microsoft created Microsoft 365 Records Management—a solution within Microsoft 365’s compliance center that helps admins manage, classify, retain, review, and dispose of data in a secure fashion. Microsoft says this solution can utilize machine learning to perform these functions at scale. Additionally, it can provide defensible audit trails and proof of destruction in order to prove regulatory compliance.

Productivity Score now in preview

Microsoft announced that its new analytics solution, Productivity Score (announced at Ignite last year), is now in preview. The company says Productivity Score will compare employee and technology experiences against benchmarks and an organization’s business goals and provide insights to maximize IT investments.

Additionally, Microsoft announced several new categories to mine for insights within Productivity Score, including Content Collaboration (how your users are collaborating, reading, writing, and sharing content on Microsoft OneDrive and SharePoint), Mobility (to see how your employees are working across web, mobile and desktop, from their various devices, wherever they’re working from) and Communications (intended to drive awareness so that users can more easily communicate via chat, email, and Yammer).  These kinds of scores are paramount to effectively managing from afar and managers are begging for it.

Microsoft also launched a new Network Connectivity category within Productivity Score, which it says will give admins information about which of their worksites are having network challenges when accessing Microsoft applications. I like this one as it takes the blame game away from the app and shares it with user’s crummy wireless networks and internet.

Wrapping up

I’m impressed by just how many updates and enhancements Microsoft rolled out at a time, touching so many different aspects of what the company does and intercepting what’s needed right now during the pandemic. But then again, that’s a big reason why Microsoft is the powerhouse that is. I believe it knows how to anticipate and adapt to changing trends, and is constantly working to do so. As one of the premier providers of collaboration tools, it is heartening to see the ways the company is rising to the new challenges of the current era. From collaboration, to VDI, to data governance and security, organizations and users alike will be better off for it.

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

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Patrick founded the firm based on his real-world world technology experiences with the understanding of what he wasn’t getting from analysts and consultants. Ten years later, Patrick is ranked #1 among technology industry analysts in terms of “power” (ARInsights)  in “press citations” (Apollo Research). Moorhead is a contributor at Forbes and frequently appears on CNBC. He is a broad-based analyst covering a wide variety of topics including the cloud, enterprise SaaS, collaboration, client computing, and semiconductors. He has 30 years of experience including 15 years of executive experience at high tech companies (NCR, AT&T, Compaq, now HP, and AMD) leading strategy, product management, product marketing, and corporate marketing, including three industry board appointments.