Microsoft's 'AI for Everyone' Plans Detailed at Live! 360

A Microsoft program manager this week gave some insight into the ways that artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities are shaping the Microsoft stack -- sometimes in surprising ways.

Pranav Rastogi, who led Tuesday's keynote of the inaugural Artificial Intelligence Live! track at the Live! 360 conference, is one of the people inside Microsoft helping drive those capabilities and technologies across the company's vast array of products. Rastogi provided attendees with an overview of what those technologies are and where they're starting to emerge in products.

"The idea here is really to democratize AI for each and every employee so that it's available and employees can use it to transform their own businesses," Rastogi told an audience of several hundred attendees at the Orlando conference.

During his hour-long talk, Rastogi provided a tour of AI technologies that can immediately be leveraged by developers, end user and business analysts. To date, AI has mostly been the domain of data scientists. Rastogi's discussion dealt with the other user profiles who may not think of themselves as potential users of AI right now. An example was a slide labeled, "Introducing the Citizen Data Scientist."

All of the AI technologies he highlighted fit into a bucket that Data Relish Ltd. Principal Jen Stirrup, another speaker at the conference, described Tuesday as the types of machine learning capabilities that are commonly coming online right now -- training computers to do a single task at roughly a human level of proficiency. That's as opposed to the strong AI of self-directed fictional scenarios like R2-D2 in "Star Wars," Skynet in "The Terminator" or HAL 9000 in "2001."

For Microsoft, the AI democratization journey has three phases. First is infusing every Microsoft application with some AI capabilities so that early adopter customers can leverage the technologies if they're looking for them. The second phase involves bringing AI to every business process, which would mean driving adoption among users both through increased ease of use and raising awareness of the vertical and horizontal benefits of using Microsoft's tools. The final phase is getting every employee at all of Microsoft's customers using the AI capabilities in some way.

The "every application" phase is in the early stages but spreading quickly across many products, making the effort already broad, if not particularly deep. As an example, Rastogi showed how Microsoft is redefining existing applications with AI using the pre-built AI services, such as Vision, Speech, Language and Search. Those capabilities are being used to create new conversational experiences inside other applications like Microsoft's own Cortana, Office and Skype, as well as other applications like Slack, Facebook Messenger and Kik Messenger.

Rastogi also showed how dense the company's flagship AI platform, Azure, is getting with machine learning capabilities. At the first level are the sophisticated pre-trained models that are ready to be called from within other applications, such as the Vision, Speech, Language and Search services mentioned earlier. The lengthy list of Azure services also includes a few designed to help data science and development teams, such as Azure DataBricks, Azure Machine Learning and Machine Learning VMs. Additionally, Rastogi highlighted the Azure options for using AI-optimized hardware in Microsoft's datacenters, and for having the compute performed in the cloud, on-premises or at the edge.

The product set where the "AI everywhere" story appears strongest is in Power BI, Microsoft's business intelligence platform for accessing, manipulating and visualizing data. A product that essentially aimed to democratize BI is now evolving to do the same for AI, as well. There are capabilities for data scientists, certainly, including Power Query integration for Azure Machine Learning and integrations with Azure frameworks. Data scientists and BI professionals can also script in R or Python or create machine learning models via clicking.

But end users also have ways to explore AI through Power BI, using Natural Language exploration. Examples of the types of things that end users or business analysts can leverage in Power BI include sentiment analysis, key-phrase extraction, optical character recognition and text translation.

Most of the AI capabilities Microsoft enables today still require a lot of leading-edge expertise, integration, development work and data science expertise. Yet it's clear that Microsoft is working rapidly to integrate those technologies all the way out to end-user-facing applications and will continue to push hard in that direction.

Posted by Scott Bekker on December 05, 2018 at 9:42 AM0 comments


Spotlight on Microsoft's AI Advances at Live! 360

A major focus of this week's Live! 360 conference in Orlando, Fla., will be artificial intelligence (AI) and its impact on Microsoft-focused developers and IT professionals.

Live! 360 is hosted by Converge360, the parent company of RCPmag.com, and brings together Converge360's events for one combined conference, with each event as a track. In addition to Visual Studio Live!, SQL Server Live!, TechMentor, Office & SharePoint Live! and ModernApps Live!, this year the conference is rolling out an entire Artificial Intelligence Live! track.

"We are excited about the AI Live launch and how that ties in nicely with our overall program of incubating new topics at Live! 360 and giving the Live! 360 attendees the opportunity to broaden their educational reach and knowledge base by attending any sessions across the six events," said Brent Sutton, vice president of Converge360 Events.

Headlining the AI track is a Tuesday morning keynote from Pranav Rastogi, a program manager at Microsoft who focuses on making developers successful with AI. His keynote is "Enabling Enterprise Developers in AI -- How Microsoft is Doing It." AI has been a huge messaging push for Microsoft over the last year and a half, and Rastogi is expected to talk about Microsoft technologies that support AI projects, as well as how Microsoft is using the approaches internally and in customer implementations.

Andrew Brust, conference co-chair for the Artificial Intelligence Live! track, as well as for the Visual Studio and SQL Server tracks, says the Live! 360 AI content will reflect the conference's roots in giving developers practical guidance.

"Most of the AI conferences out there are really like data science conferences. We will have that content, but not only that. Because it's VS Live!, we will have content for developers [about AI bots and features]," Brust said. "It's AI aimed at developers rather than AI aimed at AI specialists."

One example of the type of content that Live! 360 specializes in is being run by Brust, and will cover new AI features that Microsoft has just integrated into Power BI and how to make use of those capabilities. Another is a workshop by experienced BI expert Jen Stirrup on how BI professionals can transition into AI.

The main technology keynote for all conference tracks is on Wednesday, when Donovan Brown, the Principal DevOps Manager at Microsoft's Cloud Developer Advocacy Team, presents on "Enterprise Transformation." The talk will focus on the transition of Microsoft Visual Studio Team Services from a three-year waterfall delivery cycle to three-week iterations, open source elements and the Git Virtual File System.

Also Wednesday, James Montemagno, Microsoft Principal Program Manager in the Mobile Developer Tools unit, is scheduled to deliver an authoritative session on the future of .NET and Visual Studio.

Some of the other major technologies and themes being addressed by the more than 100 expert speakers this year include containers and the Azure Kubernetes Service, Azure Cosmos DB, PowerApps, Microsoft Flow, Windows Server 2019, Windows 10 updates, Microsoft Graph, Internet of Things (IoT) and Office 365 security.

Posted by Scott Bekker on December 03, 2018 at 9:50 AM0 comments


Microsoft Readies FastTrack PR Blitz

Microsoft is taking FastTrack on a world tour to raise the profile of the cloud onboarding service with tech professionals and developers.

Microsoft and partners have a love-hate relationship with FastTrack. Microsoft loves the program because it helps boost consumption of cloud services, a key metric for the company and a critical goal for retaining subscriptions to Office 365 and other cloud services. Partners often counter that the program zeroes-out formerly profitable routine migration services, while still devaluing in customers' eyes the more complicated migrations that partners must take over when the FastTrack desk's remote and automated capabilities fall short.

Microsoft defines FastTrack as a "customer success service." In three years, as of September, Microsoft claims to have onboarded 40,000 customers and migrated more than 6.5 petabytes of data through the service, which is included in the price of Microsoft cloud subscriptions.

The company had a big presence for FastTrack at the Microsoft Ignite show in September, with an expo presence and more than 20 FastTrack-related sessions. Next month, Microsoft begins a 17-city tour to bring Ignite material to customers around the world, and the FastTrack team is among the most enthusiastic Microsoft groups participating in the tour.

The free, two-day Microsoft Ignite | The Tour sessions kick off in December in Berlin and São Paulo. Next year, the tour will hit Toronto; Singapore; Tel Aviv; Johannesburg; Milan; Washington, D.C.; Sydney; Hong Kong; London; Amsterdam; Dubai; Seoul; Mexico City; and Stockholm before wrapping up in Mumbai in late May.

In the condensed context of Microsoft Ignite | The Tour, the FastTrack elements will include 15-minute theater sessions and breakout sessions with an emphasis on deploying Microsoft 365 products, and details about the app remediation services of Desktop App Assure.

Posted by Scott Bekker on November 26, 2018 at 11:36 AM0 comments


In a Falling Tide, Microsoft's Market Cap is Largest

When stocks in the tech sector were rising, Apple and Amazon both drove the trend and benefited from it, reaching market caps over $1 trillion, with Microsoft and Alphabet close behind.

Now that the tech sector is falling along with markets overall, Microsoft is falling less quickly.

In mid-day trading Monday, Microsoft surpassed Apple as the most valuable company in the United States. Microsoft's market capitalization was $812 billion, about $1 billion higher than Apple's.

News has been rough for Apple over the last few weeks, with the stock losing nearly a quarter of its value since a September high on reports of drops in smartphone demand. Microsoft, on the other hand, continues to deliver on its pivot from a Windows-first to a cloud-first business.

Even though Microsoft seems to have regained supremacy from Apple on this one business measure (for the moment, at least), Microsoft stock is nearly 9 percent off its record high from early October.

Posted by Scott Bekker on November 26, 2018 at 11:29 AM0 comments


Look for New Conversational AI Resources from Microsoft After Acquisition

An acquisition this week by Microsoft should result in new resources for partners interested in building conversational artificial intelligence (AI) experiences.

Microsoft on Wednesday announced it had signed an agreement to acquire XOXCO, based in Austin, Texas. Like most of the dozen-plus acquisitions Microsoft makes each year, terms weren't disclosed, which usually indicates a fairly small company and a small team.

In a blog post about the deal, Lili Cheng, Microsoft corporate vice president for Conversational AI at Microsoft, described XOXCO as "a software product design and development studio known for its conversational AI and bot development capabilities." Cheng cited examples of XOXCO's previous work, including Howdy, a meeting scheduling bot for Slack; and Botkit, a set of development tools that is popular on GitHub.

"We have shared goals to foster a community of startups and innovators, share best practices and continue to amplify our focus on conversational AI, as well as to develop tools for empowering people to create experiences that do more with speech and language," Cheng wrote.

Given Microsoft's sizable internal investments over the last few years on the digital personal assistant Cortana, the Microsoft Bot Framework, natural language processing and other AI-related services, it's unclear from the brief blog post how much new capability XOXCO brings to the company. However, Cheng notes that Microsoft has partnered with XOXCO on projects over the last few years.

One area that will be interesting to watch is how XOXCO plays into Microsoft's ongoing effort to push Teams as a competitor to Slack. The XOXCO Web site is currently replete with references to Slack, and a $1.5 million funding round three years ago was all about developing for Slack.

As one of the early movers in the Slack commercial ecosystem, will XOXCO become a Microsoft effort to have a presence on that platform, or will the team's expertise be redirected to building bots, tools and add-ons for Teams exclusively?

Posted by Scott Bekker on November 14, 2018 at 12:15 PM0 comments


SherWeb Unveils Office 365 Bundle for Partners

SherWeb is bundling some add-on solutions for Office 365 at the same base price as the underlying Microsoft cloud service to give managed service providers (MSPs) a more complete offering for customers out of the gate.

SherWeb is one of the Indirect Providers in the Microsoft Cloud Solution Provider (CSP) program, sitting between Microsoft and CSP Indirect Resellers, who sell Microsoft cloud products to customers.

The Sherbrooke, Quebec-based company unveiled the new Office 365 bundle on Wednesday, which adds security, backup and e-learning components to base Microsoft offerings, such as Office 365 or Microsoft 365.

The products include Office Protect, a one-click threat protection solution using best practice security settings; Online Backup, a backup service of 1GB per user for data and Office 365 mailboxes; and QuickHelp, which is a personalized e-learning platform designed to increase Office 365 user adoption and productivity for customers.

Plans that the Office 365 bundle comes with include Office 365 Business Premium, Office 365 Business Essentials, Office 365 Enterprise E1/E3/E5, Microsoft 365 Business and Microsoft 365 E1/E3.

In a statement, Jason Brown, vice president of products for SherWeb, declared the new offering the core Office 365 bundle from SherWeb.

"We see this as an evolution of Office 365 for partners in adding more value and providing them with the opportunity to create new products and services, and complement their managed services business," Brown said.

Posted by Scott Bekker on November 07, 2018 at 9:51 AM0 comments


Microsoft-Walmart Partnership Takes Shape

Sometimes a customer is so big, and the engagement so broad, that Microsoft refers to the customer and the deal as a partnership. One such case is the Walmart deal unveiled over the summer, and details of the arrangement are starting to come into focus.

The companies announced a five-year agreement in July that included Walmart engaging in digital transformation projects with Microsoft and committing to enterprisewide use of Microsoft Azure cloud services and Microsoft 365, the end user package that includes Office 365, Windows 10 and Enterprise Mobility + Security (EMS) functionality.

As one of the first steps in the agreement, the companies on Monday unveiled that they would be jointly staffing a "cloud factory," basically an expansion of Walmart's existing technology center in Austin, Texas, early next year. In all there will be 30 technologists in the office, which will include an undisclosed number of Microsoft engineers mixed in with the Walmart technology specialists. Walmart is headquartered 550 miles away in Bentonville, Ark., but maintains the technology center in Texas to tap into Austin's vibrant tech community.

"With this partnership with Microsoft, we started talking, 'Hey, what's the best way to accelerate all the stuff we're doing here? We need help and expertise. We want to move fast. How do we partner our smart people with Microsoft's smart people?'" said Clay Johnson, Walmart executive vice president and enterprise chief information officer, in a Q&A that posted on Microsoft's site on Monday.

"Then it was obvious: 'Why don't we just co-locate the teams together.' We haven't done something like this before with co-location, but I think the outcomes are going to be huge and strengthen our partnership even more. You're going to see a lot more co-innovation around IoT, computer vision, big data and real-time analytics," Johnson said. "We're going to learn a lot from each other. We're going to learn a lot from Microsoft -- which apps make sense to get to the cloud quickly and which don't."

The cloud factory's assignment includes a lot of the types of projects Microsoft has been routinely encouraging customers to undertake. In the lift-and-shift category, they'll be migrating thousands of internal Walmart business applications to Azure. The team will also be building new, cloud-native applications.

Beyond modernizing applications into the Azure cloud platform, the collaboration will include work on emerging technologies. For one thing, Walmart already has Internet of Things (IoT) sensors in a lot of locations.

"With our IoT work and sensor enablement, we're looking at our energy consumption and other factors to predict equipment failures before they happen. Improving equipment performance can result in enhanced energy efficiency, which lowers costs and our carbon footprint," Johnson said. "Putting IoT data into edge analytics lets us look at data at a store level and backhaul it to Azure to look at it across a region or the whole U.S. We started talking to Microsoft about this concept of a set of stores being a 'micro-cloud,' and you roll them into Azure for data analytics and insights."

Artificial intelligence (AI), chatbots and natural language processing -- three more hot areas of digital transformation -- will also get tested at a massive scale in the Walmart environment, spearheaded by the Austin-based joint team.

Projects will include internal chatbots designed to help Walmart's 2.2 million employees navigate benefits, chatbots for managing supplier interactions, and natural language processing of terabytes of unstructured text to improve business operations.

"Microsoft's going to get to see stuff at a scale they've never seen before," Johnson said of the Walmart environment. The retailer had $500 billion in revenues in fiscal 2018 and operates 11,200 stores worldwide. "I think they'll learn a lot from our footprint. Co-locating top engineers from both companies will deepen the technical brainpower for creating disruptive, large-scale enterprise solutions for Walmart."

Posted by Scott Bekker on November 05, 2018 at 1:10 PM0 comments


What's Next for Microsoft CSPs: Unanswered Questions

During the special RCP editorial webcast Wednesday on "What's Next for Microsoft CSPs: Partners' Top Moves for 2019," the attendees had more great questions than we could answer during the session. I want to hit on a few of them here, as well as provide some better answers for some of the questions we did address.

For those of you who didn't attend the live event, the presentation centered on 11 key decisions that Microsoft partners need to make in 2019 and early 2020 around their participation in the Microsoft Cloud Solution Provider (CSP) program. A few highlights involved making the Direct Bill versus Indirect Reseller decision based on the new support plan purchase requirement, selecting among Indirect Providers if you go that route, whether to chase certain incentive,s and how much to emphasize developing your own intellectual property (hint: a lot). A replay of the session is now available here.

First, let's look at a few questions that we covered in the session, but that I have a little more detail about.

Do you know how a partner can switch easily from being a Direct provider to being an Indirect Provider?
Since much of the session focused on the new expenses around being a Direct Bill CSP partner, and whether it's time to consider switching to being an Indirect Reseller, one really good question that came up was about how difficult it would be to switch. I have a consultant's answer on this one: It depends.

Mainly, it has to do with how much the partner already invested in the infrastructure required to become a direct partner, the ongoing expenses of being a direct partner, how many customers the partner has under the model and how their contracts are structured. All that aside, all of the Indirect Providers are extremely aware of this opportunity and many have competitive programs to help Direct partners make the switch into their Indirect programs.

One thing that I didn't mention Wednesday that was brought up by an Indirect Provider participant in an e-mail exchange after the call is to think of it as a process. Expect that customers will move from one model to the other at different rates.

Can you do Indirect for Azure and Direct for everything else?
A related question was about mixing and matching the CSP business models. I wasn't entirely sure until pretty late in the call about the answer to this question. A Microsoft rep attending the call kindly confirmed that partners can be both Direct and Indirect. To clarify, it's not just Azure for Indirect and everything else for Direct. You can do Dynamics, Azure, Office 365 or any of the CSP products in whichever model suits your business.

Do you have rough figures for the price of ASfP or PSfP?
The new requirement that Direct Bill CSPs pay for a support package involves an annual expense, either for Advanced Support for Partners (ASfP) or for Premier Support for Partners (PSfP). There was a question about how much each package costs. ASfP is the less expensive option at about $15,000 a year in the United States. It costs less in some geographies. PSfP is much more customizable, but Microsoft documentation shows it starting at nearly twice the price, about $28,000 in the United States. The Microsoft rep also provided this link to a partner comparison page for the service plans.

Next, there were a few questions that I completely missed in the Q&A session.

Can you describe what makes up the investment costs for Direct CSP? I've seen this ROI slide before, but what exactly are partners spending $50,000 to $1 million on?
The reference to the ROI slide was a Microsoft slide that shows how the time to profitability for Direct averages about 22 months, while Indirect is about five months. The question is about an estimated cost that Direct partners tend to spend $50,000 to $1 million. As far as I know, the source for those investment figures is an IDC e-book sponsored by Microsoft called "Partner Choice for Cloud Success: What IT Solution Providers Need to Know about the Value of Microsoft's CSP Licensing Program and the Choice of Relationship Models."

The IDC e-book describes the investments as consisting of several things. One is building a billing and provisioning model using the Microsoft APIs or paying a third-party platform for a white-label version. Another is building first-level customer support capabilities, including hiring support professionals. It can also include either building out a customer-facing cloud marketplace or paying a third-party provider to use a marketplace platform. The range is so large because it goes from managed service providers who may already have some of those capabilities in place to distribution partners who are setting themselves up to be Indirect Providers with their own networks of Indirect Resellers.

Note that the e-book predates the requirement for Direct CSPs to buy support packages.

Which margins are moving from 8 percent to 6 percent?
My slide deck focused a little too much on using the Halloween-related Chiller font in an effort to be entertaining and not enough on the relevant details. Sorry about that. I was talking in that slide about the change coming to the incentive rates for Core Office 365 for Indirect Resellers, starting in January. That rate was 8 percent paid on billed revenue from July through December. It will be 6 percent from January 2019 to June 2019.

Finally, there were a handful of questions that came in through the console that I didn't tackle because I didn't know the answer. I'll be looking into these over the next few weeks. If you have any thoughts or information about them, let me know at sbekker@rcpmag.com.

  • How are CSPs managing cash flow risk? I.e., end client does not pay, Microsoft is still owed?
  • I thought the 10 percent incentive on Azure RI has gone. Can you provide the Microsoft reference doc around that?
  • Our company has ASfP. It's been very difficult opening tickets that are routed to the right support engineers at Microsoft. Does anyone have the proper way to open advance or premium support tickets?

Thanks to SherWeb for sponsoring Wednesday's session and to everyone who participated! Again, check it out here if you missed it. Looking forward to keeping the conversation going about this critical and evolving partner program.

Posted by Scott Bekker on November 01, 2018 at 2:13 PM0 comments


IBM Takes a Chance on Cloud with Red Hat Buy

IBM may be a distant third place in the cloud market, but its executives are betting that there's still room in the cloud gold rush for Big Blue.

Case in point: IBM's plan to spend a whopping $34 billion to acquire Red Hat, which it unveiled this past Sunday. That bid represents a 63 percent premium over Red Hat's share price.

Calling the acquisition a cloud market game-changer, IBM Chairman, President and CEO Ginni Rometty predicted that with the deal, "IBM will become the world's #1 hybrid cloud provider, offering companies the only open cloud solution that will unlock the full value of the cloud for their businesses."

With earnings season winding down, analysts at Synergy Research just detailed market share estimates for spending on cloud infrastructure services late last week. As with every other quarter for as long as the market has been tracked, Amazon Web Services (AWS) is the clear No. 1, with Microsoft at a distant but strong No. 2. According to Synergy, the market share numbers are AWS 34 percent, Microsoft 14 percent, IBM 7 percent, Google 7 percent and Alibaba 4 percent.

Rometty laid out IBM's view of the state of the cloud market, specifically that it's not too late for a big move. "Most companies today are only 20 percent along their cloud journey, renting compute power to cut costs," she said in the company's acquisition announcement. "The next 80 percent is about unlocking real business value and driving growth. This is the next chapter of the cloud. It requires shifting business applications to hybrid cloud, extracting more data and optimizing every part of the business, from supply chains to sales."

Such descriptions of the opportunity are similar to the "digital transformation" rhetoric coming out of Microsoft over the last year.

How Red Hat changes the game for IBM isn't completely clear.

Much of the current market share position has to do with the massive datacenter buildouts of the last decade. Red Hat has been an open source software provider for several of the public cloud players, rather than a front-running datacenter infrastructure player. And IBM says the company remains committed to building and enhancing the partnerships Red Hat has with major cloud providers, going on to cite existing arrangements with AWS, Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud and Alibaba.

"IBM is committed to being an authentic multi-cloud provider, and we will prioritize the use of Red Hat technology across multiple clouds," said Arvind Krishna, senior vice president of IBM Hybrid Cloud, in a statement. "In doing so, IBM will support open source technology wherever it runs, allowing it to scale significantly within commercial settings around the world."

That there is still room for innovation and competitive shakeups in the cloud is undoubtedly true. As Microsoft's and Google's ongoing investments show, none of the main cloud players is willing to cede the market to AWS. Whether IBM's acquisition of Red Hat changes its positioning in that market, however, remains to be seen.

Posted by Scott Bekker on October 29, 2018 at 11:53 AM0 comments


Azure: Winding Down or Gearing Up?

The revenue growth for Microsoft Azure year in and year out is nothing short of stunning.

Microsoft logged yet another quarter of very high double-digit growth for Azure revenues in the earnings report that was released Wednesday for the first quarter of its July-to-June fiscal year.

The figure is a 76% gain over the year-ago quarter. That's impressive, especially considering Microsoft is starting from a relatively high number as the No. 2 public cloud provider after Amazon Web Services (AWS).

Yet the number is slightly worrying to financial analysts, who note that the Azure growth rate figure has been marching steadily downward over the last few years. By comparison, the growth rate for the same quarter a year ago was 90%; two years ago it was 116% for the quarter.

While analysts on the earnings call Wednesday evening were complimentary overall about the quarter, which beat expectations on both profits and revenues, they asked CEO Satya Nadella and CFO Amy Hood repeatedly about Azure and came at it from many different angles.

Nadella and Hood together conjured an extremely positive story about Azure's future built on three major elements.

One element is that Microsoft's hybrid approach to the cloud is not only a strategic advantage, but that analysts should be thinking about it as effectively hiding some Azure revenues. Microsoft's unique attribute, compared to major public cloud competitors AWS or Google Cloud Platform, is that the company has a huge installed base of on-premises server software customers. That legacy encouraged Microsoft to focus more on hybrid solutions that allow customers to move workloads to the cloud at their own pace and to integrate all kinds of services between the on-premises servers and the cloud platform. Over the last year, Microsoft has moved to bring its licensing model in line with that hybrid approach, especially via Azure hybrid benefits.

Hood made that case in an answer to one analyst. "I tend to focus...on the 'all up' server and product [Key Performance Indicator] because the Azure hybrid benefits that exist with Windows Server and SQL Server are really valuable to customers if they want to move to Azure on their own terms," Hood said. "If we start to focus on one number or the other, I think we're missing the fact that our customer method and go-to-market is actually through the overall product portfolio."

Nadella hammered the theme home in response to a different question. "We don't think of hybrid as some stopgap in a move to the cloud," he said. "[It's] not just the old workloads but most importantly for new workloads, and that's where we're seeing some very significant good feedback loops in shaping even our future roadmap. And this is a place where we are leading."

Another basic element of Microsoft's Azure story is one of driving cost out of the platform. Hood said commercial cloud gross margin percentage increased 4 points to 62%, driven by significant improvement in Azure gross margin. Nadella added that the margin improvements are crossing Microsoft's product boundaries as more of the infrastructure is unified. "For the first time, what you see across Microsoft is really one platform, which spans all of these businesses and all of the margin structures that are there represented in it," he said.

The other element is Microsoft's rapid buildout of Azure services. Nadella enumerated some of what he described as 100 new Azure capabilities introduced in the previous quarter (mostly at Microsoft Ignite), including Azure Confidential Computing, Azure Sphere and Azure Digital Twins. He pointed out that new and higher-level services should generate higher margins over time.

Several key Microsoft partners didn't need convincing that Azure has a lot of growth ahead of it.

"It's no surprise that this quarter was another strong one for Microsoft, given its recent push to expand Azure's features and its hybrid cloud capabilities," said Dux Raymond Sy, CMO of AvePoint, in a statement about Microsoft's earnings. "Over the past five years, the cloud industry has become the most competitive IT marketplace we have ever seen, but one of the most exciting things that we have seen from Microsoft is that it has managed to stay unique among its many competitors in the space."

Ryan Duguid, chief evangelist at Nintex, a process automation and management platform provider and Microsoft partner, also feels Microsoft's competitive position with Azure is strong after seeing the quarterly results.

"Azure was always going to be at the heart of Microsoft's transformation and while it got off to a rocky start by focusing on platform versus infrastructure services, it is now clear that it was a winning strategy, and that they're doing a great job of making up lost time against Amazon when it comes to hosting VMs," Duguid said in an e-mail. "Nintex bet heavily on Azure from the onset, and the platform continues to enable us to drive a rapid pace of innovation while the experts at Microsoft focus on delivering scalable, reliable, cost-effective infrastructure."

Posted by Scott Bekker on October 25, 2018 at 9:26 AM0 comments


Partners Liked Gates' New Role in 2014, And He's Still At It

When Microsoft elevated Satya Nadella to CEO in 2014, the company simultaneously announced that co-founder and chairman Bill Gates would be stepping down to a regular seat on the board but taking on a bigger tech advisory role for Nadella.

"I'm thrilled that Satya has asked me to step up, substantially increasing the time that I spend at the company," Gates said in a welcome video accompanying Nadella's promotion to CEO in February 2014. "I'll have over a third of my time available to meet with product groups, and it will be fun to define this next round of products, working together."

At the time, partners told RCP in a quick, informal poll that they really liked that idea. As we noted in our March 2014 cover story, "CEO 3.0":

A majority felt Bill Gates' decision to spend more time at Microsoft helping Nadella would be a positive, and half described themselves as "reinvigorated about Microsoft" as a result of the C-level and boardroom changes, which also included Gates being replaced by former Symantec Corp. CEO John Thompson as chairman.

Although you don't hear about the tech advisory role very often anymore, partners who approved of Gates getting more technically involved in Redmond should be happy to hear that he's still at it.

Most of the headlines Gates makes these days relate to his philanthropic work with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or to his default role as a public intellectual. He's frequently quoted on topics ranging from technology trends to global health to economics to environmental issues to his current reading list. Only rarely is Gates deployed by Microsoft as an intentional public spokesman. Usually any Microsoft-related comments he makes come up in the context of interviews about the Foundation.

Nonetheless, in a pre-recorded Wired video segment about key moments in Gates' life and career that was posted last week, Gates confirmed that he's still putting in time with engineers and technical strategists in Redmond.

"Even to this day I do some architecture things on the various products," Gates said during the segment.

Microsoft hasn't been secretive about Gates' continuing technical involvement. In an early 2017 interview, Gates revealed that his attention within Microsoft was focused on natural language, virtual assistants and various ways to be more contextual about user information. Rather, it's been more of an issue of emphasis.

When Nadella took over as CEO, Microsoft made a point to communicate that Gates would be getting more involved on a week-to-week basis with the company than he had been during the latter part of Steve Ballmer's tenure as CEO.

At the time, Gates' technical advisor role was widely viewed as a critical step to reassure investors that Nadella, who was less well-known on Wall Street than he was in Silicon Valley, would be able to handle the CEO job.

Most of those concerns have evaporated as Microsoft stayed near the forefront of a historic run in tech stocks over the last few years. Microsoft's stock value has roughly tripled on Nadella's watch. "He's done a good job of repositioning the company in investors' minds," Ballmer said of Nadella during an interview with Bloomberg in July.

Microsoft's unstated reason for involving Gates -- to calm investors -- is no longer as important. On the other hand, the surface-level reason -- leveraging one of the sharpest minds in the business of technology -- is as strong as ever.

Posted by Scott Bekker on October 22, 2018 at 12:09 PM0 comments


Paul Allen's Legacy at Microsoft

Paul Allen went on to do many significant things in his life, but the achievement that provided the springboard for so many of the rest of his activities was the fortune he amassed as the co-founder of Microsoft.

Primarily, Microsoft is associated with the other co-founder, Bill Gates, whose personality, drive and talents formed the company's identity, and who remains involved in the company's direction on a part-time basis.

On the other hand, Allen, who died of complications of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma at age 65 this week, has been out of day-to-day activity at Microsoft since 1983, and off the board since 1986. His time at the company ended before Windows became a dominant product, before the Internet emerged as an opportunity for the tech industry and a threat to Microsoft's central position in PC computing, before the public ugliness of the antitrust case, before Microsoft's rise as a major enterprise software player and before the company emerged as one of the handful of cloud megavendors.

That said, the 43-year-old company still bears a few important markers left by Allen himself.

Paul Allen (source: Microsoft)

One is the name. Calling the company "Micro-Soft" was Allen's idea. The hyphen was later dropped, but four decades later, the company still goes by a name reminiscent of a different era in tech. In 1975, "microcomputers" and "micro" were sexy terms in computing. Software remains an element of the name, as well, even in an age in which Microsoft has become more about the cloud and hardware has also become a significant piece of the business.

A bigger legacy of Allen's is his role as a catalyst for getting the slightly younger Gates focused full-time on the computer business. They spent countless hours together at the private Lakeside School  in Seattle working on a teletype terminal connected over a phone line to a time-share computer. In the small scrum of like-minded Lakeside students spurring on each other's enthusiasms for the technical possibilities of the systems, Gates and Allen were especially close.

Living in Boston a few years later, Allen grabbed his friend Gates from his college dorm at Harvard to show him the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics with its Altair 8800 on the cover. "This is happening without us!" Gates recalls Allen declaring in a successful effort to rally Gates to prioritize seizing the moment over getting a college degree.

"Microsoft would never have happened without Paul," Gates said in a statement earlier this week. Counterfactuals are difficult to prove. It's hard to imagine that given his interests, Gates would not have seen the magazine himself or seized the moment in some other way. But without the timing enabled by the personal history and chemistry between those two individuals, who knows?

Another Allen imprint on Microsoft's culture is his role in one of the most famous coding death marches in technology. After spotting that article about the Altair, Gates and Allen called the maker of the device and told him they were essentially finished with a version of Basic for it. They hadn't started.

They spent the next few weeks working around the clock. Allen, who was to do the demo, realized on the plane to Albuquerque that they hadn't written a loader, a requirement for their demo, and whipped one up on the  plane. At the time, they were calling their company "Traf-o-Data," but the core of Microsoft was there. As Stephen Manes and Paul Andrew wrote in their biography of Gates, "The development tools Allen put together in this era would serve as the core of Microsoft's language efforts for years."

Finally, what Allen realized was "happening without" them was the democratization of computing that drove Microsoft's growth strategy -- enabling a PC on every desktop -- for most of its corporate history.

Outside of Microsoft, Allen lived the dreams enabled by an early fortune for a technology titan. He invested in successful commercial space flight ventures, bought professional sports franchises, commissioned massive yachts, founded newsworthy companies and backed scientific research projects. Ultimately, he may be more widely remembered for his role in sports or those other activities, but whatever Microsoft would have been called without Paul Allen, it certainly would have been a different company.

Posted by Scott Bekker on October 18, 2018 at 10:01 AM0 comments


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