Microsoft Build 2019 is a significant event for Microsoft because it signals a major change for the desktop efforts to move to the cloud. This isn’t just PCs, but it includes gaming platforms and phone efforts, as well. (No, they aren’t building a new phone, but they are working to change how we interact with the Apple and Android phones we are buying.)
Satya Nadella, Microsoft CEO, is one of the industry’s big success stories. What I find amazing is that he largely replicates and improves on Bill Gates’ skills, which I think is a best practice when it comes to choosing CEOs. Most of the CEO failures I’ve seen seem to be because there is a massive difference between them and the model that made the firm’s most successful CEO successful. It often seems like boards just want to mix things up for no purpose. If you have a model that works, why not use it? Nadella showcases that replicating a successful executive, big surprise, works.
Before the keynote, they had an opening competition where teams of young people were using a variety of Microsoft technologies to create a product. It is interesting to note that all the teams worked on things that targeted people who had some kind of medical problem. Since the competition was the result of regional efforts, I wonder if this is as much about the judges favoring this technology as it was the young people’s desire to target this group.
I thought the competition was really fascinating and that it did a nice job positioning one of Microsoft’s more visible efforts to make the world a better place to set the initial tone. One of the folks sitting near me commented that it was amazing that “Microsoft was cool again.”
I wonder if that shouldn’t be the new tag line, because, you know, it kind of is. (Still miss the funny videos that the company used to use to open these things, though.)
Caeli Nebulizer: This was an interesting product in that the team took a variety of Microsoft technologies and created a misting drug delivery system that was low cost and apparently highly accurate. One of the big problems is affordable health care and using technology to provide high-quality, low-cost solutions for problems. What was particularly interesting is that they focused on making the tool fun for kids.
Finderr: This is a technology that will help people who are visually impaired find things. It uses a variety of Microsoft technologies to create a tool that will allow the user to use their phone, tied to a special stereoscopic camera, as a scanner to sweep the room, using haptics and voice, to find what they have misplaced. This might actually help those of us who can see find things that might blend into the background or in low light.
EasyGlucose: Diabetes is on the upswing and diabetics generally have to take a blood sample every time they have to measure their blood sugar. This technology looks at structures inside the iris to make the same determination using a filter that goes over the smartphone camera. This uses the Azure Deep Learning framework, a major component of this event, and apparently it outperforms other non-invasive technologies by 30 percent. Cost is $10 for the lens and a recurring cost of $20 a month for tracking and analysis in the cloud.
EasyGlucose won and I tended to agree because it seemed to address the broadest need, was the most technologically interesting, and it focused more on cloud support than on the device itself, putting it on the leading end of the trend that the keynote would later showcase.
Making the world a better place appears to be the primary theme of this keynote (this is becoming an industry trend). Nadella starts with talking about how the existing and coming world will be connected and driven by software. He argues that people will need to come together to build a new and better world. Microsoft’s mission is to enable millions of people to collaborate to build that world.
He points out that this was about opportunity and responsibility. At the heart of this is the need for a company to receive trust and be trustworthy. This trust framework includes privacy, cybersecurity and a responsible AI. One of the projects Microsoft is working on with partners is called Election Guard, which should help secure elections worldwide. This speaks rather strongly to the “build a better world” theme because if you can’t assure elections, you can’t assure democracy, and we have serious problems with securing elections.
Microsoft wants Azure to become the world’s computer. It currently has 54 regions worldwide and 90 compliance certifications (more than anyone else, according to Nadella). He argues those certifications are required so that there is less government drag on their work. He wants to support all first-class platforms and cited Linux as one of those critical platforms. Nadella brings his product set, which includes Azure Stack, Azure Data Box Edge, and the rest of the family into the discussion.
Ninety-five percent of the Fortune 500 use Azure. Nadella argues that the power of software is that more software developers are being hired by non-software companies than those companies. He then went through a list of companies like Walmart and St. Jude’s Hospital, talking about how these entities are using Azure to transform their businesses and how it is accelerating their innovation. One interesting implementation was by AT&T, which was using Azure for a drone-tracking product that is designed to keep drones from bringing down airlines. (I fly a lot; I may have a new favorite product.)
Starbucks is using Azure to significantly improve the quality of its product by instrumenting its stores. It has created an internal AI program called Deep Blue using reinforcement deep learning models that create recommendations based on time, location, weather, and what the store knows about you. It is also connecting its coffee equipment to the cloud so that it can better assure the quality of the result. It is also implementing a blockchain solution to track supplies, and a customer can scan the QR code on the package and know just where the product comes from and who grows it. This technology is also critical when there is a problem because the company can pull just the products that are compromised and not everything from a supplier.
This apparently is the year Microsoft achieved parity with AI and humans for Q&A. It is working to assure that infrastructure remains open and is tied to open standards so regardless of whether a firm like Intel or NVIDIA is supplying the solution, the result will work and the customer gets choice. It is increasing cognitive services (vision, speech, search, language, decision) and assuring that they are open and can be modified to meet the user’s needs. Nadella talked about the Azure speech service and how it was now able to adjust for local dialects to assure the system truly understood what the speaker was trying to say. This is critical for accurate translation because inflection can make the difference between a joke and an attack. The demonstration not only was able to accurately do speech to text, but accurately identify the speaker, and even take industry jargon and properly understand that jargon so the transcription was accurate. (This could replace court reporters, it was so good.)
Nadella talked about how BMW, Jet and Coca Cola are using this framework to own their customer experience, interact with employees better, and better assure the quality of every interaction inside and outside the company. It is interesting in that IBM also told a story on how its use of Watson massively improved sales close rates and increased customer satisfaction and engagement. What makes this interesting is that AIs are becoming better at dealing with people than people are.
This event is shortly after the HoloLens II was launched and firms like Paccar, Philips and PTC are using mixed reality for several things. These things range from telemedicine to engineering and simulation. I’m struck by how much more industrial and capable HoloLens II is than the first effort. That effort looked more like it wasn’t sure which market it was targeting and suffered for it. The current one is far more tightly targeted. I think it is a showcase that Microsoft IS listening now.
This seems to be a cross between expert systems and robotics. Toyota created autonomous pallets, which can deliver things inside its, and (I assume) its customers’, factories. Shell is using this to better find places to drill. Schneider Electric is creating an autonomous building control system that potentially could massively reduce energy costs by only applying the light, heating and cooling that is specifically needed for the number and location of people in the room.
Platforms and Opportunity
This category is the life blood of digital skills and opportunity worldwide. Therefore, thinking about the productivity of this group is incredibly important. Nadella talks about Microsoft Dynamics 365 as an impressive platform with AI built in. Business processes change by industry, time and unique company dynamics, which is why this tool is massively customizable. One size doesn’t fit all and, apparently, a huge number of ISVs are building on this platform. Any SaaS platform can use this platform to build its solution. ADVVY, annata, indegine, and Adobe are all building on Dynamics 365 for their SaaS applications.
This builds on the Open Data Initiative and Microsoft’s belief that your data is your data and it shouldn’t be siloed. The data should be controlled by you, owned by you, and put where you need it by you. This allows you to break free of any silo (this is a huge push on firms that use the lock-in model to restrict movement). The companies identified got huge benefits from being able to own and take control of their data so they could apply this data where it was needed, not just where the vendor wanted them to.
This starts by putting people at the center and then looking at how they work across all devices. Rather than starting from the device and looking forward (like Windows used to do), it is looking at how the user wants to work and then enabling that. This is a huge difference between how this Microsoft and the old Microsoft used to think.
Nadella showcased how firms are currently working across company walls to collaborate on projects larger than one company. MyAnalytics is one of the more interesting offerings, which looks at how an individual works and helps them optimize their time. Cortana is another example with automatic reminders based on commitments you made in passing (this has actually helped me a lot of late as I’m traveling a lot and apparently over-committing).
Now it gets interesting because he is talking about what is coming next with digital assistants. What if you could cross domains without having to enable each skill by domain (jump between Google, Apple Siri, and Microsoft Cortana dynamically)? You also need a multi-agent world, no one assistant can do it all, and being able to easily switch between them so each, in turn, would automatically step in where it was strongest would be best. Finally, currently, assistants are one turn. You ask a question and it answers. But we don’t interact this way. Often, we need to drill down or go off on tangents. Future assistants will be able to do all of this. The video on this showed that it will be far more like working with a human assistant than what we have today.
The Microsoft 365 opportunity is tied to the developer ecosystem and Nadella showcased that a number of companies like Fluid Math, Survey Monkey, Concepts and Bloomberg are using the capabilities in Office 365, including voice, to create unique solutions for their customers and employees.
Rather than competing with Chromium, Microsoft has embraced it and is now massively contributing to the Chromium code base. The goal is to create a true cross-platform browser, one that transcends companies and hardware. Rather then competing on the platform, compete instead on capabilities that increase productivity. (Can you imagine how much different the world would have been if Netscape, on the birth of the browser, had gone open source and licensed like Google does?) I got a preview of the demos yesterday and I’ve been using the new Chromium-based Edge browser, currently in pre-beta. I’m a huge fan. I mean, seriously, I’ve seen shipping products that aren’t this impressive. It is fast, it better organizes the sites that I regularly visit, and it better blends what I do on the web with what I need to do with what I find on the web in Office. It even does a far better job with backward compatibility. If you hit an internal IE site, it just works and if you hit a cutting-edge external site, so far, it just works as well. (Up until now, I’ve been juggling Edge, Firefox, Chrome and IE, depending on site. This promises a one-browser solution, which is the way it once was, and I liked that better myself.)
Microsoft is developing simple tools to help you manage how you are tracked. Edge will always automatically block known malicious trackers, but you get to choose who else can track you. One of my favorites is called “Collections,” which allows you to drag and drop interesting material into a group, from inside Edge. Then you can export these collections into Office, and it will autoformat the result and retain citations. (Where was this when I was doing my graduate thesis?
One other interesting feature is Fluid Framework, which allows for fast co-authoring. This allows multiple people to work on the same document at the same time with no lag and it is pen enabled. Imagine a team of four working on a contract, all remote, all have the draft in front of them, and all are able to write in what they think is needed while discussing the foundation for their change. This would have dramatically improved my performance when I was writing contracts (normally with two, not four, people but I wish I had this years ago).
I’m thinking of collaborative art all of a sudden. You can all create at the same time so multiple artists could create a masterpiece in real time. This can be integrated into any application experience. I see this as a game changer but one so big it will likely take a while for folks to really think through all this can do and allow it to rise to its potential. I think this is one of the potentially biggest little ideas Microsoft has ever had.
Teams has a scaffolding that has messaging, meetings, collaboration and workflow all built into the same product. Hendrick Motorsports (NASCAR), Marks & Spencer (retail), and NHS (hospitals) have all integrated teams into their internal processes. Teams can provide automatic captions and customized backgrounds for video conferencing. Teams with a camera can make the presenter transparent so that a remote viewer can see what is behind the speaker (I think this would be helpful even if I was in the room).
One of the more interesting demonstrations was with Spatial (a firm that apparently just got a massive amount of new funding) using a solution it developed for Mattel. You click on the Spatial icon in Teams, scan a QR code with the HoloLens headset, and you are in a virtual space together overlaid with reality. Both people see an avatar (looks a tad like the genie in Aladdin) and it feels like both parties are in the same room. (This demo would really benefit if it was connected to the NVIDIA GauGAN AI drawing technology because the folks doing this can’t draw any better than I can, and I suck at drawing.) This is about as close to magic as we can get with current technology.
I wonder if there is some group of tools, like speech to text, that could be applied to those of us trying to keep up with this keynote (my hands are getting tired). I’m told it is coming, so next Build should be really interesting.
This is a huge change as well. Again, it is putting the gamer at the center and regardless of what device you have, you can play your game. Given that game profits, even for the console makers, come from game sales, not hardware sales (game systems are sold at or below cost, typically), why it took so long to get here is likely reflective more of technology than anything else.
What is really funny for me is that Robbie Bach (he used to run Microsoft Xbox) used to argue about cloud gaming. I was convinced this was coming and Microsoft should begin to develop for it; he was convinced I was an idiot because the technology, particularly regarding latency, wasn’t ready. Ah, how things have changed.
Wrapping Up: Microsoft Shows Off Several Game Changers
I think Nadella was trying to set a record for the sheer number of big things that were being announced here. In one keynote event, they had a technology competition, plus massive changes to how we’ll interact with the web and our own customers. We saw vastly improved ways to do text to speech internationally with context preserved. There were huge improvements in how we collaborate and interact and even big changes on the flexibility we have as gamers regarding where and how we consume games.
As I’m finishing this up, in one of the other sessions, BMW was showcasing how Microsoft’s new Bot Framework could change how users interreacted with products. This demo showcased cars not only telling the driver what was wrong but helping the driver to make an appointment at a dealer to get the specific problem fixed (when this evolves into the car fixing itself, I’ll really get excited). But this idea of being able to have a conversation with your car (does anyone else remember the old TV show, My Mother The Car) as opposed to trying to figure out what the idiot light warning actually means, would, for many of us, be a big game changer.