News

Azure Takes Center Stage in Nadella's Wide-Ranging Build Keynote

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella kicked off the 2019 Build conference on Monday by describing his company's four distinct platform opportunities for development.

Those opportunities, according to Nadella, are the intelligent cloud and the intelligent edge that Microsoft Azure enables, Microsoft 365 solutions, Microsoft Dynamics and the Power Platform (Power BI, PowerApps and Microsoft Flow) and Microsoft gaming. While there's a mix of platforms in that description, however, Azure was the most prominently featured.

Microsoft currently has 54 datacenter regions around the world for its cloud services, and it has "more certifications than any cloud out there," numbering 90 certs. Nadella also declared that Microsoft is building out Azure as an open platform.

Nadella offered a number of examples where Azure is being used by organizations for application development. Walgreens is working with startups to change the retail experience. St. Jude Hospital is working with DNA Nexus to fight against childhood cancer. AT&T is rolling out 5G wireless and using Azure Stack for compute operations at the edge, including a drone airspace tracking solution. Nadella said that right now, there are more software developers being hired outside the tech industry than within it.

The four-hour Day 1 Build keynote talk is available on demand at this page. It also has links to a long list of Build announcements.

Democratize AI
Microsoft wants to democratize access to artificial intelligence (AI). It wants AI to happen using open standards and no-code machine learning. Just this year, Microsoft AI achieved parity with human translation, Nadella said. The Azure Speech Service was demonstrated during the talk, showing multiple language translations, including conversations using technical language. Nadella suggested Microsoft wants to make it capable of creating a transcript that understands local jargon as well. Language modeling is becoming much richer, and Microsoft is seeing about 3,000 conversational apps created each week.

Everything is being driven by software, Nadella said. It's an opportunity for developers, but they also have a collective responsibility. Nadella declared that privacy is a human right, and there's a need to build systems without bias. Moreover, critical infrastructure needs to be secure. He noted that Microsoft has developed ElectionGuard SDK, a free and open source project that's now live on GitHub this month, which aims to modernize election infrastructures around the world. Microsoft also plans to offer Microsoft 365 Election Guard this month for federal campaigns, which combines Microsoft 365 productivity apps and security solutions.

Microsoft is expanding Azure DevOps to use machine learning. It wants make cognitive services customizable and available in containers and edge devices.

HoloLens 2, Teams and Autonomous Systems
Nadella described HoloLens 2 as the quintessential Azure plus edge device for creating completely immersive experiences, and it can be used to support next-generation training. HoloLens 2 can be used with the Azure Spatial Anchors service to build cross-mixed-reality services.

For instance, Microsoft Teams is getting a Spatial tab. The tab allows Teams meetings to be conducted using HoloLens 2 in 3D mode, while other users can join the meeting using a mobile device in 2D mode, and all of the parties can still interact. The keynote included a demo of toymaker Mattel carrying out such a meeting. The ability to use any device in the Microsoft Teams meeting was enabled by the Azure Spatial Anchors service. Nadella described Microsoft Teams as the "fastest growing app I've seen."

A list of new Microsoft Teams improvements getting released as previews to developers or to end users "over the next few months" can be found in this blog post.

Building autonomous systems, where machines teach themselves, is a "new area for us," Nadella said. Companies are building autonomous systems. Toyota has autonomous pallets, while Schneider Electric manages room temperatures by sensing the temperature of people in a room.

Dynamics 365 and Power Platform
Nadella described Dynamics 365 and the Power Platform as the "lifeblood of digital skills" for organizations. Dynamics 365 provides developers with a rich database that gets created with the Microsoft Graph, which brings together information from Windows, Office, Edge and Teams. Microsoft Search is built on the Graph infrastructure. The MyAnalytics personal productivity solution is built using Graph data. Nadella described the Power Platform, which lets business users build ad hoc apps and workflows, as the "extensibility framework for Office 365 and Microsoft 365."

Microsoft also announced that Microsoft Search reached the "general availability" milestone on Monday, giving it production environment-ready status. Microsoft Search permits searches across Windows and applications based on Bing AI technology and "deep personalized insights surfaced by the Microsoft Graph." It also "federates these queries, so there's separation between your business and web results." It includes a new task completion feature that guides users through various steps, such as cropping or rotating a photo. Microsoft is planning to add a Microsoft Search API to Microsoft Search at some point for developers. More details will be shared later this month.

Dynamics 365 was rewritten to support microservices and it has AI built into it, Nadella said. About 90 percent of the Fortune 500 uses Dynamics 365, he added. It provides a common data model, and independent software vendors (ISVs) can build for the bottom or top part of the stack.

Microsoft also is backing the Open Data Initiative, which will let developers take data from software as a service (SaaS) apps and enrich them, putting data back into the SaaS apps, Nadella explained. The Open Data Initiative was formed by Adobe, Microsoft and SAP to create a common data model for surfacing information using AI-enhanced apps. It aims to get around the problem of so-called "siloed" enterprise data, when systems don't talk to each other.

Cortana and Personal Assistants
The Cortana personal assistant app was built as a conversational interface for Microsoft 365, Nadella said. Despite all of the progress, most of conversations are still brittle. Human language is complex and the context is subtle. A second real challenge is that most of these personal assistants are still just command systems.

Nadella said that we need a multiagent world and wondered what an open-system personal assistant future might look like. He suggested that last year's purchase of Semantic Machines would help toward getting to that future. Microsoft is pushing toward this future with Cortana and the Microsoft Bot Framework. A video shown during the talk depicted the use of Cortana for organizational day planning that alluded to Microsoft's planned direction.

Microsoft recently updated its Cortana Skills Kit for Enterprise, which is supposed to make it easier for organizations to use Cortana.

Microsoft Edge Browser
Microsoft Edge is now built using the open source Chromium engine fostered by Google. Microsoft is contributing back to the open source community and is committed to creating a truly cross-platform browser, targeting ARM 64, Android, iOS and Mac, and supported Windows platforms. Microsoft claims to have made more than 300 Chromium open source contributions.

Some new features previewing in Microsoft Edge were noted. Later this year, Microsoft will add the ability of Microsoft Edge to switch to Internet Explorer 11 when needed to support legacy sites. This capability, called "Internet Explorer mode," works with internal sites. It uses an organization's existing Enterprise Mode Site List to automatically make the switch for end users. IE mode will address the needs of the "more than 60 percent of businesses using legacy Web apps."

Microsoft Edge is getting additional privacy controls, with "Unrestricted," "Balanced" and "Strict" options. The idea is to add transparency and choice for anyone browsing. The end user should have control over privacy.

Another Microsoft Edge feature that's being previewed is called "Collections." It's designed to help users "collect, organize, and share content" from the Web. It works with Office applications such as Word and Excel using an "intelligent export" capability that "preserves the logical structure of your content." It'll let users do things like put pricing data from the Web into an Excel spreadsheet for comparison.

Microsoft 365 and Fluid Framework
Microsoft 365 is Microsoft's licensing bundle consisting of Office 365, Windows 10 and the Enterprise Mobility and Security suite. The Fluid Framework for Microsoft 365 is a new set of technologies that developers can use with any browser. Microsoft described it as a "web-based platform and componentized document model for shared, interactive experiences."

The Fluid Framework enables fast coauthoring, as well as collaborative inking. It permits content to be "deconstructed and reconstructed into modular components" to help with collaborations. It has an AI aspect that supports intelligent agents. For instance, Microsoft demonstrated text getting translated into nine different languages. It'll also "fetch content, provide photo suggestions and identify experts." The Fluid Framework will arrive later this year as an Office 365 experience and also as a software development kit (SDK) for developers.

Nadella claimed that gaming has always been important at Microsoft. He showed off an old Bill Gates-built game as an example. He claimed that Microsoft Azure has had tremendous traction in providing support for games, with Azure PlayFab providing a backend service that supports the building and operating of games. Microsoft's Xbox Live service currently has 63 million users, and it's now available on iOS and Android.

More developer nuances were described in a second portion of the keynote talk. It featured Scott Guthrie, executive vice president of the Cloud and Enterprise Group at Microsoft, who spoke on aspects such as Kubernetes support, an Intellicode tooling addition and the ability to sign into Azure using a GitHub account, among many other details. The Kubernetes and GitHub news are described in this Azure blog post.

Featured

  • The 2019 Microsoft Product Roadmap

    From the next major update to Windows 10 to the next generation of HoloLens, here's what's on tap from Microsoft this year.

  • 2019 Microsoft Conference Calendar: For Partners, IT Pros and Developers

    Here's your guide to all the IT training sessions, partner meet-ups and annual Microsoft conferences you won't want to miss this year.

  • New Features Added to Microsoft 365 Business Subscriptions

    Microsoft's productivity and collaboration plan for businesses with fewer than 300 users is getting two new features: conditional access security and trouble-ticket tools for administrators.

  • Microsoft Details 'Wave 2' Release Roadmap for Dynamics 365

    Microsoft this week announced its "Wave 2" product release plans for its Dynamics 365 enterprise resource planning solutions, as well as its Power Platform.