I’m at Microsoft Build this week and the first keynote is from Satya Nadella, the CEO. Nadella is a showcase of what a replacement CEO for a founder should be. He is a subject matter expert on the cloud and successfully transitioned Microsoft to this new paradigm. He started by pointing out that his founder predecessor, Bill Gates, was talking about Apple stock and how this reflected on Microsoft’s change. No longer insular, Microsoft will literally partner with anyone now and is doing very, very well as a result. Though I do think it is likely a tad frustrating for Gates to watch his own company pivot and be successful with new initiatives while Apple gets a huge valuation even though its latest efforts have underperformed or, like the HomePod, largely failed in market.
Nadella pivoted to talk about how the world is becoming a computer; everything is becoming connected, from agriculture to medicine, from cars to drones, from office to home, everything is being connected. The goal is to create the rich experiences in our future lives. This is the opportunity that Microsoft is looking to capture.
It is the responsibility of the firms doing this to ensure the industry grows and creates employment. It is the industry’s duty to build trust in this emerging technology. Hans Jonas was quoted saying “Act so that the effects of your action are compatible with the permanence of genuine human life.” This is what I think many companies forget: Technology should be in concert with the people who use it and focused on a desirable future.
Microsoft is focused on three core pillars according to Nadella: privacy, cybersecurity, and ethical AI.
Privacy: Privacy is a fundamental human right. Microsoft has a set of core principles to ensure that the user has control of and can manage their personal information. Microsoft is a believer and backer of GDPR and promises to be compliant with it by the time this month ends.
Cybersecurity: We need to act with collective responsibility across the tech sector to help keep the world safe. Microsoft has aggressively fought government’s attempt to access user information up to the Supreme Court. Microsoft has worked with the government to help secure the U.S. democratic process and has aggressively worked in concert with other firms to assure users are protected from attack.
Ethical AI: We need to ask not only what computers can do but what they should do. Microsoft has formed an ethics board in the company to assure that the firm is on the right side of history. Nadella believes we need a good AI so the choices we make are in concert with a positive future for the human race. We need tools that can de-bias the information going in to creating AIs so that they aren’t flawed by how they are trained. They have invested in massive libraries surrounding verticals to ensure accurate information.
Azure Becoming the World’s Computer
Azure already has more certifications than any other cloud platform. They are aggressively building out Azure, Azure Stack, Azure IoT Edge to assure it is the best platform for the future possible. Chevron, ABSA Bank, Schlumberger are firms aggressively using the platform for very diverse mission-critical applications. They are announcing they are taking Azure Edge Open Source to speed the advancement of the platform. They have over 230 partners who have certified over 1,000 applications on the platform. Qualcomm is partnering on an AI developer kit for computer vision (I’ve been briefed on this, it is incredibly powerful and could massively change the security camera market). They announced a Windows SKD and Commercial Drone Solutions solution for Azure, IoT Edge and AI.
Last month, Azure Sphere was announced, which connects secure silicon in the MCE, a secured OS, and cloud security into an IoT end-to-end solution.
Sam George came on stage to showcase the Rockwell Automation Azure implementation using Qualcomm’s Computer Vision solution. This uses a combination of sensors and smart cameras to identify and mitigate refinery problems. The example showcased a sensor that identified a pressure drop in a pipe. The camera could then verify and report whether the pipe was leaking and immediately dispatch repair. They are working with DJI to automate drone scanning and reporting. They then brought in a commercial drone pilot (who looked to be in his teens and I’m surprised I didn’t run for the door). It ran flawlessly and was able to use the technology to identify a pipe problem in a picture on the wall. This solution would be massively helpful in looking for problems in the world’s badly aging infrastructure before they become catastrophes.
Microsoft AI Leadership
Nadella is back and talking about how they achieved object recognition human parity in 2016, speech recognition in 2017 at human levels, to human quality translation this year. The goal is to provide Azure AI for every developer in every organization. To get there, they need to scale across all clouds and have a robust and comprehensive tool set. Their solution currently spans vision, speech and language. Customers using this are Coca Cola, BMW, Twitter, KMPG, RIT and the NBA for a wide variety of solutions. One of the most interesting solutions is targeting students to customize training and education. One of the cooler devices was a Chinese hand-held translation device.
To enable this kind of solution better, they announced a Speech Device SDK and reference kit. He then spoke about Kinect and how it evolved from the Xbox for gaming to a tool that is used now in hospitals to help offset disabilities. They announced Project Kinect for Azure to massively advance this use of powerful sensors to help machines and people better interconnect and interoperate.
Bots are the new applications. Nadella believes that every company will eventually build branded agents that will converse across multiple personal digital assistants. Basically, he is talking about the idea that if you have a relationship with a brand and that brand has an agent, that agent will remain consistent if you talk to it over your Echo, in your car, or on your smart TV. They are launching 100 new features in their Bot Framework updates. This means custom speech, personalities, and a better understanding of context for these new bots. This Azure AI framework and tools effort is missioned to have the best data estate, best toolchain, and be the most open in the market. (Good goals, I’m wondering how they will measure this to assure they meet those goals.) By the way, this is a best CEO practice, setting aggressive goals across the organization that, if achieved, will assure market leadership. More should do this at events like this.
Cortana and Microsoft 365
This was followed by a series of demonstrations with Cortana and Amazon’s Alexa working on both Amazon Echo and Windows PCs. The goal is to have consistent user experiences across devices. Microsoft is aggressively promoting Cortana as the preferred digital assistant for business. This isn’t just Cortana but the wealth of Microsoft applications and tools eventually making moving between manufacturers and device types easy and largely transparent.
They followed with a number of workplace demonstrations where users were able to schedule meeting rooms with Surface Hub capability and use a prototype business digital assistant in the room. Using a series of Microsoft tools, a woman who was deaf was able to move from her phone to PC to seamlessly collaborate with her peers.
It isn’t about using more screens or grabbing more screen time, it is about empowering more people and organizations. Nadella is clearly differentiating from firms like Google and Facebook where revenue comes from eyeballs on screens and not from more traditional forms and how that new model is corrupting collaboration and business/school productivity. It isn’t about mining users, it is about making users more productive, happier with their jobs, and able to collaborate more inclusively (despite race, age, sex or disability). For Microsoft, is isn’t about the limitless opportunity to grow revenue or dominate, it is about creating a limitless opportunity for the customers. (I often wish more CEOs would remember and articulate this, this is the way it should be but often isn’t.)
They offered demonstrations of tools that allowed those who can’t hear or see to better integrate with their peers. Microsoft announced AI for accessibility targeting this critical opportunity and the crowd went a little wild. This last gives me a lot of hope for the future: getting excited about something that helps others, rather than the latest toy or smartphone.
Wrapping Up: Microsoft’s Human Focus
It really amazes me how much Microsoft has changed since last decade. They praised Linux on stage and embraced open source. Much of their effort is in applying technology to help users and to make the world a better place to live in, not about pumping more crap into the market that no one seemed to want or ask for. Nadella, because he is one of them, spoke well to this developer audience and is a standing showcase of how important it is to have someone run a company who is intimate with its products and can identify with its customers. I was particularly touched by the focus on those who can’t hear or see, and the tools being created to help them have far better lives.
Finally, I agree with the differentiation that showcases why the focus on free and ad-funded efforts compromises the result. If you are paying the vendor then, at least, the customer/vendor relationship is understood. When advertisers pay for what you get, who owns your data gets muddy and the goals of the effort can be in direct opposition to the goals of the users, who are closer to being a product sold to others than the customers they should be.
Overall this was a nice balance of vision, product and customer empathy. Nicely done!
Rob Enderle is President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, a forward-looking emerging technology advisory firm. With over 30 years’ experience in emerging technologies, he has provided regional and global companies with guidance in how to better target customer needs; create new business opportunities; anticipate technology changes; select vendors and products; and present their products in the best possible light. Rob covers the technology industry broadly. Before founding the Enderle Group, Rob was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group, and held senior positions at IBM and ROLM. Follow Rob on Twitter @enderle, on Facebook and on Google+