Strategic Microsoft Partners Get the 'Swarm' Treatment

The ongoing reorganization of the Microsoft channel operation, One Commercial Partner (OCP), includes a new concept called the "swarm," a pool of technical experts at Microsoft available to strategic partners.

The term came up during the most recent podcast in the "The Ultimate Guide to Partnering" series as host Vince Menzione was interviewing Scott Buth, director of partner development in the Microsoft U.S. OCP. Buth, a 10-year Microsoft veteran, is responsible for improving the capabilities of Microsoft Licensing Solution Provider (LSP) partners, an elite group that currently consists of 16 companies.

Specifically, he works with those partners in the newly defined solution areas -- Modern Workplace, Apps & Infrastructure, Data & AI and Business Applications. Those four topics were laid out as major horizontal solution focus areas in the field reorganization that was laid out in July.

Asked by Menzione to elaborate after mentioning the "swarm" term, Buth offered this description: "It is the pool of essentially of Cloud Solution Architects that align to our four solution areas...Those resources are aligned so those solution areas and the [Partner Technical Strategist] who quarterbacks the technology and the solution development for our strategic partners has the ability to engage those individuals and bring them into the conversation, help train and enable the partner technical resources, as well as create a deeper roadmap for where they want to go with their solutions."

The definition came up as Buth was describing Microsoft's overall efforts to deploy Microsoft's partner-supporting business and technical experts in combination for the benefit of partners.

"It's really to get under the hood of our partners' capabilities, understand the types of practices that they have in place today, the offerings that are generating profit for them, and then also work with them in a strategic way to align them on a road map of offering development that we want to work on," Buth said.

You can listen to Menzione's interview with Buth here:

While the "swarm" term doesn't seem to be commonly used outside of Microsoft or confidential briefings with individual partners, the concept lines up with floating technical resources in Microsoft OCP organizational charts (see below). Those charts mention Cloud Solution Architects and Partner Technical Architects that are outside the main organization buckets of OCP (Build-with, Go-To-Market and Sell-with).

[Click on image for larger view.]

The "swarm" idea offers hints of how Microsoft intends for those technical experts to be deployed.

Posted by Scott Bekker on October 30, 2017 at 8:43 AM0 comments

Investors To Acquire Datto, Merge It with Autotask To Form MSP Powerhouse

Investment firm Vista Equity Partners shook up the managed service provider (MSP) market on Thursday by announcing an agreement to acquire Datto and to combine that data protection specialist company with another of its holdings, MSP tools vendor Autotask Corp.

Assuming the deal closes as expected by the end of this year, it will create a powerhouse MSP tools company with offerings ranging from backup and disaster recovery (BDR) to remote monitoring and management (RMM) to professional services automation (PSA), along with file sync and share and SMB networking. Datto founder and CEO Austin McChord will serve as CEO overseeing a combined management team, while Autotask President and CEO Mark Cattini will act as a strategic advisor to the board of directors. Branding for the combined company has not been determined.

"This unique combination of talent with a track record of success marks a new chapter that will make an even bigger impact for our managed service provider partners, by delivering an unprecedented set of capabilities for them to serve millions of small businesses in the future," McChord said in a statement. Terms of the deal were not disclosed, although Datto has previously been valued as a $1 billion company after securing $75 million in a Series B financing round two years ago.

Datto is based in Norwalk, Conn. Autotask, with headquarters in New York, was acquired by Vista Equity Partners in June 2014. Vista, which focuses on enterprise technology companies and has invested $30 billion since 2000, has offices in Austin, Texas; San Francisco and Chicago.

The companies did make public a few scale metrics, including that Datto-Autotask have a combined 13,000 providers/MSPs, 500,000 SMB customers and a geographic reach that covers 125 countries.

Cattini emphasized the future company's potential for creating integrations between the product lines and improve the products. "With the powerful combination of the Autotask Unified PSA-RMM platform and Datto's industry leading business continuity solutions, together we can now deliver unprecedented innovation and unmatched levels of value and service to our customers and partners worldwide," Cattini said in a statement.

Executives from both Datto and Autotask assured both MSPs and industry partners that the new company will continue to work openly with its competitors/partners to ensure that products are interoperable -- allowing MSPs to continue to mix and match among RMM, PSA and BDR tools.

"We're going to continue to have an open philosophy. That's worked well for Autotask in the past, and it's certainly worked well for Datto," said Patrick Burns, vice president of product management for Autotask, in an interview.

Citing BDR and file sharing competitor eFolder and PSA/RMM vendor ConnectWise as examples, Datto Chief Revenue Officer Brooks Borcherding elaborated on the interoperability philosophy: "Going forward we would certainly expect and encourage Autotask partners to continue on with an eFolder or for ourselves to continue to have a strong relationship with ConnectWise and all the importance of the integration and ease of use that come along with that because all the MSPs have their different needs and they're fulfilled better by one or a mix of those different services."

Borcherding and Burns both said that even as Datto-Autotask works in cooperation with industry partners, look for the Vista-backed entity to continue to add new elements to the stack via acquisition, as well as innovation, and to compete vigorously.

Outside of the Vista investment community, other industry figures confirmed the importance of the deal.

"The merger between Autotask and Datto signifies a major shift in the MSP vendor landscape," said Fred Voccola, CEO of Kaseya, in a statement.

"Investor-backed companies, like Datto/Autotask and Kaseya, will continue to acquire technologies that will help them bring more comprehensive solutions to benefit the greater MSP community. On the other hand, those without the necessary financial backing (like ConnectWise, TigerPaw, and others) will steadily lose ground as they are unable to invest in the products to help take their MSPs to the next level of growth," Voccola said. "Kaseya will continue to work harmoniously with Datto/Autotask to deepen the integration between our products and fully support our mutual customers who use VSA by Kaseya."

UPDATE: In a statement Thursday night, ConnectWise CEO Arnie Bellini offered congratulations but emphasized the internal tensions that Datto and Autotask will face in driving forward their own products while integrating with industry partners.

"Today's Datto/Autotask merger announcement is exactly what we expect to see in a rapidly expanding ecosystem," Bellini said. "ConnectWise's acquisition strategy is different. We are focused on building a completely integrated business platform for Technology Solution Providers of all kinds, including MSPs. We also believe in an open and connected ecosystem of choices. For example, ConnectWise currently offers our customers six different data protection solutions: Infrascale, Acronis, Storage Craft, Veeam, Centrestack and Storage Guardian. Those choices are important! It seems the new Datto/Autotask merger will offer a single data protection solution. That may not work out well for them. Regardless, we congratulate them and welcome the competition. It makes all of us better."

Posted by Scott Bekker on October 26, 2017 at 9:11 AM0 comments

Cisco Acquiring BroadSoft for $1.9 Billion

Cisco made a major move to expand its collaboration footprint within small and medium businesses worldwide on Monday with the announcement of its intent to acquire cloud-calling and contact center solution vendor BroadSoft for $1.9 billion.

"Following the close of the acquisition, Cisco and BroadSoft will provide a comprehensive SaaS portfolio of cloud based unified communications, collaboration, and contact center software solutions and services for customers of all sizes," said Rob Salvagno, vice president of corporate business development for Cisco, in a blog post about the deal.

BroadSoft is a publicly held company based in Gaithersburg, Md., and the agreement calls for Cisco to pay $55 per share in cash. The board of directors of each company has approved the deal, which is expected to close in the first quarter of 2018.

Rowan Trollope, senior vice president and general manager of Cisco's Applications Business Group, emphasized the way the deal expands the types of customers Cisco can now reach. "We believe that our combined offers, from Cisco's collaboration technology for enterprises to BroadSoft's suite for small and medium businesses delivered through Service Providers will give customers more choice and flexibility," Trollope said in a statement.

BroadSoft executives played up the potential for Cisco's collaboration tools and services to improve the performance and capabilities of BroadSoft's hosted solutions.

According to the companies, BroadSoft partners with 450 telecom carriers in 80 countries, reaching more than 19 million business subscribers.

Once the deal closes, the BroadSoft employees and operations will be part of the Cisco Unified Communications Technology Group run by Vice President and General Manager Tom Puorro. That group is part of Trollope's organization within San Jose, Calif.-based Cisco.

Posted by Scott Bekker on October 23, 2017 at 12:27 PM0 comments

KRACK Spells Big Trouble for Wireless Security

A long-standing pillar of modern computer security sustained major damage on Monday when researchers revealed a serious weakness in WPA2, the gold-standard protocol for protecting wireless networks.

The Belgian researcher who discovered the weakness, Mathy Vanhoef of KU Leuven, dubbed the new category of attacks "KRACK" for "key reinstallation attacks."

KRACK exploits a flaw in the way a client joins a WPA2-protected network, a procedure known as the four-way handshake. Critically, Vanhoef noted that the flaw exists in properly configured wireless networks. "The weaknesses are in the Wi-Fi standard itself, and not in individual products or implementations. Therefore, any correct implementation of WPA2 is likely affected," Vanhoef wrote on a Web site created to explain the vulnerability,

By manipulating and replaying cryptographic handshake messages, KRACK tricks the victim system into re-installing keys that are already in use, Vanhoef wrote. While the attack does not reveal the wireless network password, it does allow some to all of the network traffic to be visible to an attacker, depending on the encryption protocol in use.

Like any wireless attack, KRACK requires the attacker to be within wireless signal range of the target, and only circumvents the encryption provided by WPA2, not the encryption of the underlying data using Transport Layer Security or other types of protection. (In a proof-of-concept video on his Web site, however, Vanhoef used the SSLStrip tool in combination with KRACK methods to simulate a man-in-the-middle attack to view an Android phone user's encrypted Internet traffic.)

"Attackers can use this novel attack technique to read information that was previously assumed to be safely encrypted. This can be abused to steal sensitive information such as credit card numbers, passwords, chat messages, emails, photos, and so on," Vanhoef said. "Depending on the network configuration, it is also possible to inject and manipulate data. For example, an attacker might be able to inject ransomware or other malware into websites."

Vanhoef began notifying affected vendors in mid-July and had originally planned to go public with details in August, but began working with industry organizations as the scope and scale of the problem became evident.

The coordinated public release of the details of the attack Monday morning caused a flurry of activity in the security community. A CERT Vulnerability Note #228519 titled, "[WPA2] handshake traffic can be manipulated to induce nonce and session key reuse," went out Monday with a list of 15 affected vendors, including Cisco, Intel, Juniper Networks, Red Hat, Toshiba and others. Vanhoef's own tests found Android, Linux, Apple, Windows, OpenBSD, MediaTek, Linksys and others vulnerable, although the problems are particularly acute for Android and Linux.

Because of the early notice, Microsoft has already issued fixes for the flaw, a Microsoft spokesperson said in an e-mail: "Microsoft released security updates on October 10th and customers who have Windows Update enabled and applied the security updates, are protected automatically. We updated to protect customers as soon as possible, but as a responsible industry partner, we withheld disclosure until other vendors could develop and release updates."

In a post on his personal blog, Alex Hudson, CTO at the Iron Group, ranked his impressions of risk by platform. "Attacks against Android Phones are very easy!" he wrote. "Best to turn off wifi on these devices until fixes are applied. Windows and Mac OS users are much safer. Updates for other OSes will come quite quickly, the big problem is embedded devices for whom updates are slow / never coming."

Hudson also pointed out that the main attack was against clients, not access points. "Updating your router may or may not be necessary: updating your client devices absolutely is! Keep your laptops patched, and particularly get your Android phone updated."

Meanwhile, vendors that are focused on other layers of security were quick to pounce on the incident as further evidence of the need for multifaceted security approaches.

"There's no stopping users from connecting to public Wi-Fi hotspots, so it's up to the enterprise to layer on protection mechanisms. This vulnerability speaks to the importance of ensuring that all connections from endpoints leverage strong encryption, such as the latest versions of Transport Layer Security (TLS). Intermediary proxies can ensure that regardless of what the application supports, all connections from end-user devices leverage strong encryption," said Rich Campagna, CEO of Bitglass, in a statement.

While WPA2 has not been impervious to attack, the flaw represents a significant chink in the armor of one of the more robust quarters of computer security. Previous attacks on WPA2 mostly involved hitting surrounding technologies, such as vulnerabilities in Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS), or required either password-guessing or an attack from a table of hashed passwords that could only succeed if the correct password was already included.

It will be possible to issue patches in a backward-compatible manner, meaning that KRACK doesn't create a need for a WPA3, Vanhoef noted. Nonetheless, the combination of unpatched and unpatchable systems mean attacks based on this new method are likely to be a factor in wireless network attacking and defending for a long time to come.

Posted by Scott Bekker on October 16, 2017 at 1:04 PM0 comments

Office 365-Focused Botnet Puts Spotlight on Security of System Accounts

The recent discovery of a botnet aimed at Office 365 customers puts a spotlight on a commonly overlooked category of system accounts.

Skyhigh Networks this month reported a botnet it dubbed "KnockKnock" that it discovered several weeks ago. Active since at least May, and especially active from June through August, the relatively small botnet seems to have been highly targeted in both the types of accounts it attacked and the types of organizations it went after.

"The reason this is interesting is not that a botnet is trying to get into accounts, but the fact that it is trying to get into system accounts," said Sekhar Sarukkai, chief scientist at Skyhigh Networks, in an interview.

What the attack does, according to Skyhigh's description, is go after the system accounts that are commonly used to connect the Exchange Online e-mail system with marketing and sales automation software. In cases where the system accounts were compromised, KnockKnock exported data from the inbox, created a new inbox rule and began a phishing attack from the account against the rest of the organization.

Skyhigh picked up evidence of the botnet through its Cloud Access Security Broker (CASB) Threat Protection engine when the company's customers were attacked. Skyhigh says the traffic came from 63 networks and 83 IP addresses, with 90 percent of traffic coming from IP addresses in China. In all, the attacks came from 16 countries.

The attacks averaged only five e-mail addresses per customer. Additionally, the organizational targeting was extremely specific -- aimed at infrastructure and Internet of Things (IoT) departments within the manufacturing, financial services, health care and consumer products industries, as well as U.S. public sector agencies.

"It just seems like it's orchestrated in a controlled manner, rather than a free-for-all, get-what-you-can kind of campaign," he said.

Sarukkai said that what is helping the effectiveness of the attack is that non-human system accounts are less likely to be protected by multi-factor authentication or security policies, such as recurring password reset requirements. "Once these accounts have been provisioned, they're really sort of forgotten," he said. "I think these actors have a pretty good understanding of the weakest link in Office 365 and in general the security infrastructure -- almost like the hidden weakness."

Posted by Scott Bekker on October 12, 2017 at 12:28 PM0 comments

Microsoft CSP Participation Growing Rapidly

The number of U.S. partners participating in the Microsoft Cloud Solution Provider (CSP) program is up by about a third over the last half year.

"We're just over 8,000 partners who are selling in the program," said William Lewallen, who leads the Microsoft CSP program in the United States, in a podcast posted on Wednesday.

The comments on the Vince Menzione podcast series, "The Ultimate Guide to Partnering," are an update from Lewallen's appearance on the same podcast about six months ago, when he said Microsoft had 6,000 U.S.-based CSPs. (See RCP's coverage of that podcast here.)

CSP is Microsoft's sales program that allows partners to resell cloud services -- such as Office 365, Azure, Dynamics 365, Enterprise Mobility + Security (EMS) -- to customers, either directly or indirectly through indirect provider partners like Ingram Micro, Tech Data, SherWeb or others. Partners are encouraged to use the program to package the Microsoft services with their own and third-party services to present a complete solution to customers.

While still the U.S. lead for the program, Lewallen's position has shifted within Microsoft. Amid the major partner and field reorganizations taking place this year, CSP has moved into the new One Commercial Partner (OCP) organization, which is run in the United States by David Willis. OCP is organized into three main teams covering different functions of Microsoft interaction with partners -- build-with, sell-with and go-to-market. CSP is now part of the go-to-market team.

Among other updates, Lewallen said month-over-month revenue growth continues to advance at double-digit rates and mentioned that non-Office 365 products are gradually gaining share in the growing pie. In his previous appearance, Lewallen said Office 365 accounted for over 80 percent of CSP sales, which was down from nearly 100 percent the previous year. In Microsoft's view that non-Office 365 component needs to grow as the company emphasizes other products through the model.

"Our non-Office 365 products have continued to increase their share of the total pie by a few points, which is good. And that's primarily coming in the areas of Azure and Dynamics, and that's what we expect for the course of the year, is to continue that growth of those other products as a share of the total, obviously while continuing to grow the large Office 365 business as well," Lewallen said in the new podcast.

The 30-minute podcast, as well as a complete transcript, are available here.

Posted by Scott Bekker on October 11, 2017 at 10:55 AM0 comments

GDPR Tools Come Online from Kaseya, Microsoft

As the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) enforcement date approaches, major IT vendors are continuing to spin up tools and resources to help customers and partners ensure compliance and avoid potentially catastrophic fines.

GDPR is a European Union regulation for protecting the data and privacy of EU citizens. GDPR was approved by the EU Parliament in April 2016, and enforcement begins on May 25, 2018. It requires notifications within 72 hours of a breach, evidence of thorough efforts to protect customer data, and clear consent policies to allow EU citizens to opt out of data collection or have their data deleted.

The regulation is important beyond the 28 member states of the European Union because the EU will pursue fines beyond those borders for any organization anywhere in the world that handles the data of EU subjects. Maximum fines are up to 4 percent of a company's annual revenues or 20 million Euros, whichever is greater.

"This has serious teeth to it," says Mike Puglia, chief product officer at Kaseya and a veteran of many of the IT compliance preparation efforts over the last few decades. "[The fines] would be a material impact if not an operational-ending impact."

Kaseya on Thursday unveiled a GDPR Resource Center and Compliance Pack for helping customers worldwide bring their operations into compliance with GDPR. The core is the Compliance Pack, which is a free plug-in to VSA, Kaseya's remote monitoring and management tool.

"There are a lot of things that our customers do with our product that will help you comply: patching, anti-virus, anti-malware, backup, what user accounts are on those systems, when they have been accessed," Puglia says. "We've taken all those things that we do, and brought them together. I can feel confident that I am taking industry reasonable steps. The product itself can mitigate or remediate any issues, and [it does] reporting for evidence."

Kaseya's efforts this week at Kaseya Connect Europe in Amsterdam follow a related tool unveiled by Microsoft during its Ignite conference last week. That tool, the Compliance Manager, is planned to be a part of the Microsoft 365 Enterprise edition, which is a subscription combination of Office 365, Windows 10 and Enterprise Mobility + Security (EMS).

"Compliance Manager enables you to conduct real-time risk assessment, providing one intelligent score that reflects your compliance performance against data protection regulatory requirements when using Microsoft cloud services," wrote Alym Rayani, director, Office 365 Security, in a blog post about the tool.

A preview program of Compliance Manager is planned to start in November. The scoring tool will join other GDPR readiness tools from Microsoft, such as an online GDPR benchmark assessment tool and a GDPR readiness assessment tool for Microsoft partners to use to help customers.

Posted by Scott Bekker on October 05, 2017 at 12:59 PM0 comments

Microsoft To Hold Connect(); 2017 in November

Microsoft is adding one more big developer event to its calendar for 2017.

The company announced Thursday that it will hold Connect(); 2017 from Nov. 15 to 17 in New York City and live stream portions of the event.

Scott Guthrie, executive vice president for the Microsoft Cloud and Enterprise Group, will keynote and the three-day event will include 75 sessions and hands-on training.

Details on a teaser Web page for the conference are light, but an announcement blog stated that focus areas would include cloud, data, artificial intelligence, Internet of Things and open source technologies.

Posted by Scott Bekker on October 05, 2017 at 9:29 AM0 comments

SkyKick Expands in Europe

Hoping to capitalize on an anticipated explosion of cloud opportunities in Europe, channel-focused cloud management software provider SkyKick is opening a European office Thursday in Amsterdam.

The move will double SkyKick's European headcount, although the Seattle-based company did not provide precise employee numbers. SkyKick's European operations were previously concentrated in the United Kingdom, where the company will maintain a presence.

SkyKick is looking to IDC projections that public cloud services in Western Europe will grow at a compound annual rate greater than 25 percent through 2020. "The number of European companies that are moving their business to the cloud continues to skyrocket," said SkyKick EMEA General Manager Kathryn Saducas in a statement.

In an aptly named facility in Amsterdam called "The Cloud," which also houses offices for Amazon and Uber, the new SkyKick office will support partners in Europe with the first SkyKick Support Center outside the United States, as well as providing a base for sales and operations employees.

The new office follows SkyKick's recent addition of support for cloud migrations and backup to Microsoft's German datacenters in Magdeburg and Frankfurt.

SkyKick delivers tools that allow partners to migrate customers from various platforms to Microsoft Office 365, back up customer data to the cloud and manage customer environments.

Posted by Scott Bekker on October 05, 2017 at 1:06 PM0 comments

Tech Data Refreshes Its Brand

Tech Data is simplifying its brand.

The sprawling, multi-faceted IT supplier with $16.5 billion in sales in the first half of this year announced on Wednesday a set of branding moves, which primarily serve to fold the Technology Solutions business acquired earlier this year from Avnet into a more cohesive Tech Data story.

Gone is the word Corporation from the company's marketing name -- it's now just Tech Data. Also jettisoned are smaller brands, such as Tech Data Cloud or Tech Data Mobile Solutions. Now the company will refer to Tech Data's cloud solutions, or Tech Data's mobile solutions. The rebrand also incorporates minor changes to the logo color palette and design.

"Our new global brand is centered on the proven strength of the Tech Data name and provides a unified promise of integrity, expertise and excellence," said Bob Dutkowsky, chairman and CEO of Tech Data, said in a statement. "Tech Data serves as a beacon in the IT channel -- central to our customers' and vendors' success. Our teams have highly specialized skills in next-generation technologies, extensive software and services capabilities, and the best logistics engine in the industry, all backed by a global IT system that can do anything from process the sale of a laptop to configure the most complex multi-vendor solution."

Tech Data is now grouping its offerings into two major portfolios, which encompass most of existing Tech Data products, as well as what came to Tech Data with the $2.6 billion Technology Solutions acquisition. An Endpoint Solutions portfolio will include PCs, mobile phones, printers, peripherals, supplies, software and consumer electronics. An Advanced Solutions portfolio will include servers, networking, storage, datacenter software, converged/hyperconverged infrastructure, cloud, Internet of Things, mobility, security and analytics.

A few specialized brands will persist, including Datech Solutions, Maverick AV Solutions and Global Computing Components. A fourth specialized brand, the European datacenter offering called Azlan, will be gradually transitioned into the Advanced Solutions portfolio.

Remaining in place is the high-level executive team unveiled in February with the close of the Technology Solutions business acquisition.

That structure had Dutkowsky's direct reports as Chuck Dannewitz, executive vice president, chief financial officer; Rich Hume, executive vice president, chief operating officer; Beth Simonetti, executive vice president, chief human resources officer; John Tonnison, executive vice president, chief information officer; and David Vetter, executive vice president, chief legal officer.

Reporting to COO Hume were William Chu, president, Asia-Pacific; Jaideep Malhotra, president of Global Computing Components; Joe Quaglia, president, Americas; Patrick Zammit, president, Europe; Els Demeester, corporate vice president of Integration; and Michael Urban, corporate vice president of Strategy, Transformation and Global Vendor Management.

In Quaglia's Americas organization, Marty Bauerlein, senior vice president of Commercial & Retail Solutions, will run the Endpoint Solutions portfolio, and Jeff Bawol, senior vice president of Enterprise Solutions, will run the Advanced Solutions portfolio. In Zammit's Europe organization, Stephen Nolan is senior vice president of Endpoint Solutions and Graeme Watt is senior vice president of Advanced Solutions.

Posted by Scott Bekker on September 27, 2017 at 8:24 AM0 comments

MPN Cloud Competency Fees Going Up Oct. 1

Microsoft's subsidy program to attract partners to the five strategic cloud competencies in the Microsoft Partner Network (MPN) will end later this month.

The move will raise annual U.S. partner fees for gold cloud competencies by $790 and silver cloud competencies by $140.

"Starting October 1, 2017 the cloud competency fees will be the same as all other competencies (US$1,670 for Silver and US$4,730 for Gold)," said Chinmayi Bhavanishankar, partner experience lead and simplification expert on the Microsoft U.S. Partner Team, in a blog post this month.

The lower prices had applied to the five cloud competencies -- Cloud Customer Relationship Management, Cloud Productivity, Cloud Platform, Enterprise Mobility Management and Small Midmarket Cloud Solutions.

Bhavanishankar said the price change will apply to partners at the time of their membership renewal. A different introductory benefit that will continue is the Cloud Enablement Desk, which is a free program for new cloud competency partners to get guidance from a Cloud Program Specialist for up to six months.

The price change on cloud competencies arrives just as some other major changes to the MPN competency structure fully take effect. In April 2016, Microsoft announced an 18-month plan for retiring 12 of the 29 competencies in the MPN. Those competencies will be completely retired on Jan. 31, 2018.

Posted by Scott Bekker on September 19, 2017 at 10:34 AM0 comments

Can Cortana-Alexa Alliance Lead Digital Voice Assistants from Gimmickry to Utility?

A few years ago, I remember thinking that if Siri, Cortana and their digital voice assistant peers aspired to be more than gimmicks, their corporate parents would need to teach them to play nice with each other.

Few people live their entire digital lives on one platform. As an example, Cortana can be deeply integrated into your Microsoft-based work life, Siri into the iOS part of your personal life, Google Assistant into the Android portion of your personal life and Alexa into your shopping existence. Getting those assistants talking could open a lot of possibilities to simplify and unify things, rather than complicating and compartmentalizing them.

In the interim, I haven't thought about it much, mostly because the whole question seemed less important.

While Alexa has emerged as the humanized AI of the moment, it's obvious that despite her many cool capabilities, she exists in the world for one reason and one reason only -- to move more product from the silo, albeit the massive silo, of's e-commerce operation.

Cortana became steadily less relevant as Microsoft abandoned its once grand smartphone ambitions. Granted, she's on the ubiquitous Windows 10, but the voice interface is much less critical for a PC than a smartphone. It's clearly preferable to talk to a phone rather than to tap away on softkeys with your thumbs in many situations. There are far fewer use cases on a PC where talking is as efficient, let alone more efficient, than using a physical keyboard and mouse. Meanwhile, Microsoft seemed to be pivoting its efforts to concentrate on improving voice recognition services and APIs for developers rather than for Cortana, the personified digital voice assistant.

Siri, meanwhile -- and this is my completely anecdotal experience -- seems to be inexplicably getting less useful over time. When I first started using Siri two years ago, the voice recognition seemed better and the responses seemed more relevant, helpful and often fun. Lately the hit-to-miss ratio has been so low that I've mostly stopped asking Siri anything.

All of which is to say, the digital voice assistants launched as gimmickry, understandably and necessarily, but don't seem to be maturing into highly functional assistants that can make it easier to navigate your 21st-century life.

Then this week, out of the blue, Microsoft and declared that they'll have Cortana and Alexa talking to one another and asking one another for favors by the end of this year.

"This collaboration will allow you to access Alexa via Cortana on Windows 10 PCs, followed by Android and iOS in the future. Conversely, you'll be able to access Cortana on Alexa-enabled devices like the Amazon Echo, Echo Dot and Echo Show," said Andrew Shuman, corporate vice president for Cortana Engineering at Microsoft, in a blog post Wednesday.'s news release on the deal Wednesday extrapolated on the applications: "Alexa customers will be able to access Cortana's unique features like booking a meeting or accessing work calendars, reminding you to pick up flowers on your way home, or reading your work email -- all using just your voice. Similarly, Cortana customers can ask Alexa to control their smart home devices, shop on, interact with many of the more than 20,000 skills built by third-party developers, and much more."

In a New York Times interview, CEO Jeff Bezos said he hoped that similar integrations with Apple and Google could be forthcoming, although both of those companies declined comment. While much focus will be on whether it's in Apple's or Google's interest to cooperate, that misses the point.

For digital voice assistants to have real value, these types of integrations are critical. Let's hope this two-member club becomes a four-member club in short order. A non-gimmicky future for digital voice assistants depends on it.

Posted by Scott Bekker on August 31, 2017 at 9:05 AM0 comments

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