Gates Urges 'Tough Medicine' in U.S. Shutdown Debate

Bill Gates has waded into the ongoing discussion over how the United States can curb the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic without sacrificing the health of its citizens.

On one side are those urging a massive public health response to save millions of people from death; on the other are those looking for less extreme measures to soften the unprecedented economic hardship that the shutdowns, self-isolation and social distancing are causing.

Gates occupies a unique vantage point in this debate. At Microsoft, Gates built a fortune that has ranked him as the first or second wealthiest person in the world for decades, and saw him move in the most elite financial circles. And since 2000, he and his wife have operated the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the world's largest private charity. Through the foundation, Gates has made himself one of the foremost experts on global health issues and has been raising concerns about pandemics for years.

Thursday marked something of a flashpoint in the debate. The number of cases of COVID-19 in the United States surpassed the total in China, making the United States the country with the most cases of the disease in the world. On the same day, nearly 3.28 million workers sought unemployment benefits, smashing previous weekly records.

Pushing hard to relax even the patchwork shutdowns enacted by various state and local governments so far, President Trump on Wednesday said he hoped to see America "roaring" back to business around Easter, April 12. A Trump letter to governors on Thursday also promised a plan to classify individual counties into three risk levels and set response levels accordingly.

In a lengthy town hall-style interview on CNN Thursday night, Gates came down squarely on the side of the "tough medicine" of a robust public health response to what he termed a "terrible pandemic." Gates called for a national shutdown and argued that it needed to last six to 10 weeks.

"What's going on here is mind-blowing. Never in my lifetime have we had to change our behavior and had this drastic effect on the economy in order to save lives," Gates told CNN town hall hosts Anderson Cooper and Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

"There are people who wish we didn't have to do that. That is fully understandable. This is some very tough medicine. But it's better to take the economic problem, where the economy can come back, than to allow it to spread throughout the country and take millions of deaths as the price that we have to pay here," Gates said.

The math doesn't add up for partial shutdowns, different measures for different counties or ending the shutdown before late May or early June, Gates argued.

"Having states go with different things or thinking you can do it county by county, that will not work. Cases will be exponentially growing anywhere you don't have a serious shutdown," he said. With inconsistent testing, porous county borders and a coronavirus that spreads by 33 percent per day, a seemingly low-risk county can jump quickly from 100 cases to thousands then tens of thousands.

Asked how long he expected to be at home with his family, Gates said, "There is some uncertainty about this, but my view has been that through May, unfortunately, the schools are not likely to come back for this...school year. That's about the range, late May, early June, that we'll probably have to be like this."

One of the challenges of a complete shutdown is that its effectiveness will keep cases down, and create temptation to lift the restrictions. Aside from the lives saved, however, a major upside of a six- to 10-week shutdown is the ability to do it once.

"I do see it coming to an end, and if we do it properly we'll only be shut down, in the U.S., for that one period of time," Gates said.

Posted by Scott Bekker on March 27, 2020 at 8:18 AM0 comments


Microsoft Cancels In-Person Inspire Partner Conference

Due to concerns over COVID-19, Microsoft canceled the in-person portion of its massive annual partner conference, Microsoft Inspire, which had been scheduled for Las Vegas from July 19-23.

Early registration had been scheduled to open Tuesday.

"The safety of our community is a top priority. In light of health safety recommendations from public health authorities, we will not be holding Microsoft Inspire 2020 as an in-person event. We are exploring alternative ways to bring our partner community together to connect and learn. Stay tuned for more details to come," Microsoft said in a statement posted Monday night. The statement was attached to the top of Channel Chief Gavriella Schuster's Feb. 20 blog post previewing the conference.

Inspire is a massive conference. The show regularly draws 10,000 to 15,000 attendees with roughly half of them traveling from all around the world to be there. Microsoft executives giving keynote speeches in 2019 included CEO Satya Nadella, President Brad Smith, Executive Vice President of Worldwide Commercial Business Judson Althoff and Schuster, whose formal title is corporate vice president for One Commercial Partner.

While Microsoft has canceled live portions of other conferences, such as Microsoft Build, the Inspire move is doubly significant. With a start time in the second half of July, it's one of the later technology conferences to be canceled so far.

Additionally, Inspire's emphasis on helping partners to network with each other, with vendors and with Microsoft, is one of the most valuable aspects of the show. Due to the networking focus, it will be a difficult experience to replicate virtually.

Posted by Scott Bekker on March 24, 2020 at 8:35 AM0 comments


Microsoft Teams Usage Surges by 12 Million Users in a Week

Way more people are kicking the tires of Microsoft Teams worldwide as the coronavirus forces people to work from the isolation of their homes as a public health measure.

"We have seen an unprecedented spike in Teams usage, and now have more than 44 million daily users, a figure that has grown by 12 million in just the last seven days," reported Jared Spataro, corporate vice president for Microsoft 365, in a blog post Thursday.

Microsoft defines daily active usage as users doing something on purpose on a desktop, mobile or Web client in a 24-hour period. The definition doesn't include auto boots, minimizing a screen or closing the app.

The daily active usage figure is up from 20 million daily active users in November.

The recent increase is hardly surprising for an application that's included as the default collaboration software in many of the Office 365 SKUs that customers are already paying for. The global spike in remote workers and their employers' initiatives to use a tool they have on hand for presence, chat and meetings is converting a "shelfware" component of Office 365 into a vital tool for staying in touch.

Many of Teams' collaboration competitors like Slack, Zoom, Cisco WebEx and RingCentral are reporting increased demand, although Microsoft's unique scale with Office 365, and Teams' inclusion as part of the package, gives it a huge base to build on.

"We believe that this sudden, globe-spanning move to remote work will be a turning point in how we work and learn," said Spataro, who also noted that users generated over 900 million meeting and calling minutes each day this week on Teams.

Scott Paul, senior director for the Microsoft Alliance at AppRiver, a major Microsoft cloud solution provider (CSP) partner company, said earlier this week that Teams would probably be a rare bright spot for Microsoft's business in the next few months. "Microsoft's investments in teamwork and collaboration technologies like Teams, SharePoint and OneDrive, and Surface Hub could potentially mean some incremental volume as businesses get serious about fewer meetings and less travel," Paul said. "On the other hand, global economic weakness will likely translate to less hiring and sluggish PC and server sales."

Similarly, RCP columnist Per Werngren encouraged partners to leverage their Teams subscriptions internally as one of a few key steps in confronting the business challenges of the coronavirus. "By leading by example, you will probably also seal some new business related to Teams," Werngren wrote.

Also this week, Microsoft channel chief Gavriella Schuster highlighted Teams in a blog post detailing partner resources around COVID-19. "We recommend that partners lead with the CSP Trial, as this is the only experience that partners can initiate and manage," Schuster wrote. She also noted that Microsoft FastTrack is available to help organizations get set up for remote work.

The large bump in usage for Teams has not been without its problems. The @MSFT365Status Twitter account reported problems with Teams chat on Monday and Tuesday of this week. "We investigated and resolved an issue with the Teams chat service that affected some of our users in the Europe region. We determined this to be a caching issue within a component of our infrastructure," the company said on the Twitter account Tuesday morning.

Amid the increasing interest in Teams, Spataro's blog touted several features that are coming later this year, including real-time noise suppression, a "raise hand" feature for getting attention in a large group video meeting,  offline/low-bandwidth support and new devices.

Posted by Scott Bekker on March 19, 2020 at 8:46 AM0 comments


Microsoft Stores Shuttered

Microsoft followed Apple and many other retailers in shutting down all Microsoft Store locations until further notice in an attempt to limit the spread of coronavirus.

"With today's recommendation from the United States government to not socially gather in groups of more than 10 people, we will be temporarily closing Microsoft Store locations -- effective immediately," wrote David Porter, corporate vice president, Microsoft Store, in a letter to customers and the community e-mailed Monday night.

"We are closing all Microsoft Store locations to help protect the health and safety of our customers and our employees. During this unprecedented time, the best way we can serve you is to do everything we can to help minimize the risk of the virus spreading," Porter wrote.

According to the Microsoft Store locations homepage, Microsoft operates 73 stores in the United States, seven in Canada and one each in Australia, Puerto Rico and the United Kingdom.

The digital version of the Microsoft Store remains open and employees are staffing the support.microsoft.com site, as well.

The move follows Microsoft's decision March 4 to encourage employees in the Seattle and San Francisco areas to work from home.

Posted by Scott Bekker on March 17, 2020 at 3:11 PM0 comments


Axcient Moves To Ease Remote Work Transition Around Coronavirus

One provider of a key component of remote work is offering temporary free licenses for new customers as employers throughout the United States encourage their employees to stay home in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Axcient, a provider of availability and security solutions sold through managed service providers, is making Anchor licenses free for new customers through June, meaning the offer could last for up to three months.

Anchor is Axcient's business-oriented cloud file storage solution. Data in the Anchor system is accessible without a VPN connection and includes continuous backup and support for point-in-time restore.

"Due to the coronavirus pandemic, businesses around the country are implementing a remote workforce, and MSPs are helping enable that transition," Axcient CEO David Bennett said in a statement Monday. "At Axcient, we want to do everything we can to support our partner community, especially during this time of crisis."

Posted by Scott Bekker on March 16, 2020 at 10:02 AM0 comments


Microsoft Build Goes 'Digital' over Coronavirus Fears

To address public safety concerns over the coronavirus, Microsoft is turning its biggest developer conference of the year into an online event.

The company this week announced it is cancelling the in-person portion of Microsoft Build, which had been scheduled for May 19-21 in Seattle. There were about 6,000 attendees at the show in 2019, and Microsoft regularly uses the event to launch major products, services, features and initiatives.

By holding the event online, Microsoft is likely to still treat the event as a major venue for news.

"The safety of our community is a top priority. In light of the health safety recommendations for Washington State, we will deliver our annual Microsoft Build event for developers as a digital event, in lieu of an in-person event," a Microsoft spokesperson said in an e-mailed statement.

"We look forward to bringing together our community of developers in this new virtual format to learn, connect and code together. Stay tuned for more details to come."

The conference is one of dozens of technology events and countless other public events from parades to meetings to sports tournaments and professional sports seasons to be cancelled as cases of COVID-19 mount worldwide.

Keep up to date on all the Microsoft-related technology conferences with RCP's conference calendar.

Posted by Scott Bekker on March 13, 2020 at 2:43 PM0 comments


Horvitz Assumes New Role as Chief Scientific Officer at Microsoft

Microsoft has added a new office to the C-suite.

Eric Horvitz has been named Chief Scientific Officer, a new job title at Microsoft. The company has recently been expanding beyond its software legacy -- where artificial intelligence is a natural fit -- to more physical areas of science, such as quantum computing, health care and the new corporate initiative to become carbon negative.

"The focus of the chief scientist position is to provide cross-company leadership on advances and trends related to scientific matters and on important issues and opportunities rising at the intersection of science, technology and society," Horvitz said in a post on LinkedIn this week. "I'm looking forward to the chance to more deeply shape our company's activities, focus of attention, investments, and understandings of how today's efforts and near-term plans relate to trends -- and potential surprises -- on the horizon."

Horvitz said his office will focus on AI principles, applications and directions, as well as biology, medical informatics, physics, sustainability, economics, social sciences and behavioral sciences. Horvitz, who joined Microsoft in a research role in 1993, was most recently in charge of Microsoft Research Labs.

Peter Lee will take over the lab role in addition to his work as corporate vice president for Microsoft Healthcare, which may hint at more collaboration between Microsoft Research and the company's health care initiatives.

Posted by Scott Bekker on March 11, 2020 at 12:24 PM0 comments


Microsoft, Partners Lead Global Offensive Against 'Necurs' Botnet

Microsoft and an international consortium of partners this week launched a counterstrike against Necurs, a massive botnet that Microsoft had been observing and analyzing for nearly eight years.

Botnets are packs of hundreds, thousands or millions of PCs, sometimes called zombies, that have been infected with malware and are under the command and control of malicious actors. Think of your parents' under-patched and out-of-support Windows 7 computer infected with a Trojan that enlists that computer in various nefarious schemes. The zombie PC's owner may notice nothing at all, or sometimes suspect a decline in performance. According to Microsoft, Necurs has had a role in a lot of those nefarious schemes.

Believed to be controlled by criminals in Russia, the botnet is also thought to have been used directly by its owners, as well as rented out as a botnet-as-a-service for various online skullduggery. One of its highest-profile roles was aiding in distribution of the GameOver Zeus banking trojan.

In the years since it first came to the attention of security researchers in 2012, the network has infected as many as 9 million computers globally. It has left its nasty digital fingerprints on pump-and-dump stock scams, fake pharmaceutical spam, Russian dating scams, Internet-based computer attacks, credential theft schemes, data theft attempts, cryptomining and, of course, ransomware. While botnets can be a key component of distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks and Necurs has DDoS capabilities, Microsoft says that particular use for the botnet has not been documented.

Detailing what a big deal Necurs represents is a blog post from BitSight, a cyber risk management platform provider that worked closely with Microsoft on the Necurs problem. "From 2016 to 2019, it was the most prominent method to deliver spam and malware by criminals and was responsible for 90% of the malware spread by email worldwide," BitSight alleged.

In a sign of the complexity and length of the effort against Necurs, BitSight and Microsoft have been collaborating since 2017 to understand technical aspects of the botnet. That effort included techniques such as reverse engineering, malware analysis, module updates, infection telemetry, command and control updates, and forensic analysis, BitSight said.

In parallel with the technical work, Microsoft coordinated an international campaign involving the courts, other tech companies, ISPs, domain registries, government computer emergency response teams and law enforcement.

To prepare for the operational phase, Microsoft on March 5 got an order from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York. That order allowed Microsoft to take over the systems inside the United States that are used by Necurs for malware distribution and computer infections.

Microsoft and its partners crafted a sophisticated response built on the technical specifics of the Necurs botnet. Having studied the algorithm that Necurs uses to generate new domains, Microsoft used its considerable technical resources to jump ahead of the botnet. "We were then able to accurately predict over six million unique domains that would be created in the next 25 months," wrote Tom Burt, Microsoft corporate vice president for customer security and trust, in a blog post.

The response then leveraged Microsoft's web of global relationships with partner companies worldwide. "Microsoft reported these domains to their respective registries in countries around the world so the websites can be blocked and thus prevented from becoming part of the Necurs infrastructure," Burt said.

The main counterstrike was launched Tuesday from what a detailed New York Times account described as an "eerily empty Microsoft campus" due to most workers having been ordered home to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

"By taking control of existing websites and inhibiting the ability to register new ones, we have significantly disrupted the botnet," Burt said. "Microsoft is also taking the additional step of partnering with Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and others around the world to rid their customers' computers of malware associated with the Necurs botnet."

As a concrete step, Microsoft is pointing users to the Microsoft Safety Scanner to help wipe their computers of malware, including Necurs.

While the Necurs botnet was massive, and Microsoft's effort to attack it required substantial resources, Microsoft executives were resigned that any drops in spam, malware and cyberattacks would be temporary at best. In the NYT article, executives described the effort -- sadly and accurately -- as a game of whack-a-mole.

Posted by Scott Bekker on March 11, 2020 at 2:56 PM0 comments


Coronavirus Concerns Sink PC, Smartphone Shipment Forecasts

Fears over the coronavirus and its effect on global supply chains will result in a leaner-than-expected year for the PC and smartphone markets, according to IDC.

The Framingham, Mass.-based research firm slashed forecasts last week for both PC shipments and smartphones. It now projects a 9 percent decline for the PC market in 2020, with total shipments reaching 374.2 million for the full year.

The big drops in shipments are expected in the first half of the year, with a decline of a little over 8 percent in Q1 and nearly 13 percent in Q2.

"We have already forgone nearly a month of production given the two-week extension to the Lunar New Year break and we expect the road to recovery for China's supply chain to be long with a slow trickle of labor back to factories in impacted provinces until May when the weather improves," said Linn Huang, an IDC research vice president, in a statement. "Many critical components such as panels, touch sensors, and printed circuit boards come out of these impacted regions, which will cause a supply crunch heading into Q2."

IDC's definition for PCs includes desktops, notebooks, workstations and tablets. Before the coronavirus appeared, IDC was already expecting a difficult year for PCs due to difficult comparisons against last year, when the Windows 7 replacement cycle boosted PC sales.

Also last week, IDC released revised forecasts for smartphone shipments in 2020. The firm had previously expected a better year for smartphones. Now, however, the supply chain issues along with potential drops in demand in the world's largest smartphone market of China due to prevalence of the coronavirus there are causing IDC to anticipate a decline of more than 2 percent in 2020. Shipment volumes are expected to reach around 1.3 billion units for the full year.

While IDC expects the PC market to work its way slowly out this slump, the firm is more bullish on the smartphone market, which should benefit from a 5G tailwind in 2021.

Posted by Scott Bekker on March 02, 2020 at 2:26 PM0 comments


Microsoft: Coronavirus To Put Damper on Windows Business

Microsoft's third-quarter results will likely take a hit from the global coronavirus emergency and its impact on the supply chain, Microsoft warned investors this week.

The warning comes less than one month after Microsoft's Q2 earnings results, in which surprisingly strong demand for Windows, partly driven by end-of-support deadlines, helped the company exceed Wall Street expectations.

Even in its Q2 earnings call, however, Microsoft was already priming investors for a potential effect from the coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, which arose in Wuhan and has led to mass quarantines and industrial shutdowns in China. At the time, Microsoft provided what it called a wider-than-usual range of quarterly revenue guidance of $10.75 billion to $11.15 billion for the More Personal Computing segment, which includes Windows and Surface.

"Although we see strong Windows demand in line with our expectations, the supply chain is returning to normal operations at a slower pace than anticipated at the time of our Q2 earnings call," Microsoft said in its statement Wednesday. "As a result, for the third quarter of fiscal year 2020, we do not expect to meet our More Personal Computing segment guidance as Windows OEM and Surface are more negatively impacted than previously anticipated."

Microsoft did not provide a new range for the current quarter, which runs through the end of March. Revenues for other business units are not expected to be affected.

In the large stock market losses earlier in the week, Microsoft shares declined, but at a slightly lower rate. In extended trading after the announcement, Microsoft shares dropped a further 2%. Also following Microsoft's announcement, chipmaker Intel's shares declined about 1% and PC maker Dell's shares fell by about the same amount.

Posted by Scott Bekker on February 27, 2020 at 1:31 PM0 comments


SophosLabs: A Quarter of Malware Using TLS

The industrywide push in recent years toward encrypting Web traffic isn't just for good guys.

Encryption has always been neutral, as useful to bad actors for hiding nefarious activity as it is for legitimate users trying to protect their data from those trying to steal it.

New research from SophosLabs documents how widespread the use of HTTPS connections is becoming in malware circles, especially for communicating back to command-and-control servers (C2).

SophosLabs on Tuesday reported on a representative sampling of malware analyses the research team has conducted over the past six months.

"Out of all the malware that made some kind of network connection during their infection process, about 23% communicated over HTTPS, either to send or receive data from the C2, or during installation when they may use HTTPS to conceal the fact that they are retrieving malicious payloads or components," SophosLabs threat researcher Luca Nagy wrote in the blog post describing the research.

Not all types of malware communicate equally over TLS. Information-stealing trojans made up only 16 percent of the samples SophosLabs tested during the six-month period, but of those, 44 percent used TLS over standard HTTPS ports. Ransomware, which does its damage in other ways, was less likely to use encryption when calling home.

Sophos released the research Tuesday in conjunction with the launch of a new firewall, which features more advanced SSL inspection, including support for TLS 1.3 without requiring downgrading, new policy tools and performance improvements. More detail on XG Firewall v18 is available here.

Posted by Scott Bekker on February 18, 2020 at 2:29 PM0 comments


NuWave Offers Partners a White-Label Route to Teams Voice

As Microsoft herds its collaboration users toward the Teams platform, Teams voice services have grown rapidly, as well. Even with the rapid gains, usage of voice services in Teams represents a tiny fraction of overall Teams adoption. That lag reflects the challenges unique to voice, from network optimization to working with carriers to requirements for provisioning users.

One early technology partner of Microsoft's on Teams voice is trying to spur voice adoption with a new partner program. NuWave Communications on Thursday launched a white-label program to help partners and resellers get customers into voice plans without the need to build up expertise on daunting voice technologies.

Las Vegas-based NuWave now offers the white-labeling of iPilot, which is the company's relatively new provisioning portal for Teams Direct Routing customers. The iPilot portal works with NuWave's Direct Routing calling plans.

Mark Bunnell, chief operating officer for NuWave, contends that the time is right for voice services through Microsoft. "When Office 365 is the center of your universe as a business, it's really easy to think about getting Teams voice and bringing it all together," Bunnell told me in an interview Thursday.

"Teams right now is equated to the gold rush. Like the gold rush, nobody brought clothes or food so they froze to death on the way up there."

Mark Bunnell, COO, NuWave

As they have with Lync, Skype and other Microsoft services, however, partners struggle with the leap from IT infrastructure to voice services.

"Teams right now is equated to the gold rush. Everyone is trying to get a piece, everyone is trying to turn on a Teams practice. Like the gold rush, nobody brought clothes or food so they froze to death on the way up there," Bunnell said of the rough experiences some customers and partners have had with voice services.

NuWave's approach stems from the company's 20-plus year history in SIP Trunking, hosted PBX, unified communication as a service (UCaaS) and related fields. "We've taken the extremely complex and we've made a turnkey solution that doesn't make [the partners] be technical," Bunnell said.

First, iPilot leverages NuWave's experience from several years of Teams voice deployments, covering migrations from Microsoft's older voice platforms or other sources and handling the PowerShell elements of provisioning users within a customer's Microsoft tenant. As the provider of the lines, the company also saves time in setting up proofs-of-concept from a process that can take several weeks in many cases to under an hour, Bunnell said.

After the set up, NuWave provides end-user training materials, such as user guides and videos, to get customers up to speed quickly. With the white-label program, partners have the ability to customize the pricing customers see and the phones they want to offer, he said.

"It really enables you to turn up a customer, get them fully trained and move on to the next one," Bunnell said.

Voice services aren't for every Office 365 partner. But for those looking for a way to spin up a quick, low-investment Teams voice practice, NuWave is saying the right things.

Posted by Scott Bekker on February 13, 2020 at 10:16 AM0 comments


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