Of all the innovation we can expect from Microsoft in the years to come (modern workplace, business applications, applications & infrastructure and data), the one recurring theme in all conference stories was Artificial Intelligence. Different from past events, AI was almost presented as a commodity. The conference narrative focused on AI serving everyone and being deployable by the business without the interference of IT. During most demos, presenters emphasized there was no need for ‘coding’ to set up the presented AI service (editor’s note: but this didn’t take away some of the complexity).
Individual AI topics that were addressed during separate Inspire sessions did not necessarily make Microsoft stand out from their competitors in every domain of expertise. Adding it all up, however, the conference presented Microsoft as a vendor capable of delivering Artificial Intelligence through an entire platform, including today’s workplace with Microsoft 365 as well as business applications, Dynamics 365 and the Azure Cloud platform.
In an impressive demo during the first Corenote, Microsoft executive VP Judson Althoff revealed how Unilever uses ‘Digital Twin’ technology at a Dove soap factory in Brazil to monitor the production lines and to predict (and therefore avoid) faults by using data to look back and to look ahead (read more). Azure Digital Twins (currently under Preview) is an Azure IoT service that creates comprehensive (‘twin’) models of the physical environment.
The conference’s general motto was ‘Democratizing digital’. Digital technology and more specifically Artificial Intelligence can be made useful to everyone. Many of the productivity sessions during the conference (covering Microsoft 365) illustrated how AI simplifies common tasks people have to do in their day-to-day jobs. A nice example is Presenter Coach in PowerPoint, a piece of software that listens to you rehearsing your presentation. Presenter Coach provides input to improve the way you present, taking into account speed, words you use and different ways of presenting, like you reading the slides or telling a story. Very useful for lots of people (read more).
Inspire covered a lot of topics related to the modern workplace. Microsoft’s message is to automate mundane tasks. That’s made possible for instance by the Contract Companion in Word, a function that is able to proofread a contract and is powered by Artificial Document Intelligence (Trademarked), ensuring all your agreements meet your firm’s strict quality standards.
Another technology that facilitates work is Fluid Framework, a collaboration platform that lets you coauthor a document seamlessly without hiccups. Outlook’s new AI features save you time in setting up meetings. The Design Ideas feature in PowerPoint will examine the content of a selected slide to offer you a variety of design choices based on what it finds. The intention clearly is to provide tools with the ability to learn how you work instead of tools that you need to learn how to use.
Microsoft Teams received a lot of airtime during last year’s Inspire conference. The collaboration platform was all over the place during every session covering the modern workplace. Although SharePoint is the underlying platform, the user experience is far more advanced and attractive than the combination of Skype for Business and SharePoint. A very nice capability that was added to Teams is the ability to capture a real whiteboard through a separate camera and share it amongst the meeting participants (allowing you to see through the presenter).
One of Microsoft’s goals for AI is to achieve ‘human parity’. In one of the sessions, two audio recordings where played. One of a real human voice and one based on neural text-to-speech technology ‘built’ on the same human voice. No one could hear the difference. During the Corenote with Satya Nadella on Wednesday, Julia White wowed the Inspire crowd with a Language-translating HoloLens Hologram of herself, showing a ‘second’ Julia White giving a speech in Japanese.
With this technology comes responsibility. There was a pretty good session by Mitra Azizirad, where Microsoft’s Corporate Vice President for AI explained how the company's AI approach is built on three pillars: meaningful innovation, empowering people and responsible AI. Good to see that Microsoft is aware of their ethical responsibilities in this matter.
Italian furniture company Natuzzi shows how this mixed reality technology using HoloLens can be put to more practical use where allows customers to see potential purchases in the context of their own homes.
Demos and scenarios were shown during many of the sessions at Inspire, including non-commercial examples such as the demo of ‘Smart City 2.0’, where bots, almost fully created during the session, answer questions from citizens about e.g. building permits (read more).
A lot of the AI technology is available and ready to be used today. 1.3 Million developers are using Azure Cognitive Services, 35 Million BOT service messages with speech recognition are processed every day and all the AI innovation within the Office applications is available to 155 Million Office 365 users.
Many sessions at the conference on Business Applications covered the integration of these AI technologies with Dynamics 365. The Virtual Agent, based on the Microsoft BOT framework, allows an organization to set up a customer service based on intelligent, adaptable virtual agents: AI driven bots. A lot of Microsoft’s own experience with customer services has been used to ensure this technology delivers. The integration of Microsoft Flow, a service to create automated workflows between apps and services, helps creating and updating Dynamics records (from other apps) or, for example, sending out notifications. (read more).
Microsoft Flow is part of the Microsoft Power Platform, an integrated application platform combining Power BI, PowerApps, and Microsoft Flow. With Microsoft PowerApps in combination with Flow, organizations can create very appealing, simple and manageable apps to simplify daily tasks without all too big investments in classic development cycles.
Microsoft PowerApps have become more mature over time. A workshop during the conference on ‘build a Microsoft PowerApps application in 60 minutes’ showed how realistic it is to create a business app connected with data and processes in a short period of time.
Microsoft Flow is one of the building blocks, together with services such as Azure Functions and Azure Logic Apps, of what is called Serverless Computing. This means total abstraction from servers. No need to provision nor manage servers to setup a solution, all infrastructure is managed for you. Serverless computing is based on capturing the occurrence of events and triggers in near-real-time, all in the cloud. Fully managed in the Cloud, therefor with all server management and provisioning invisible to the developer and all consumed when needed. This is a great opportunity for developers (scaling) and for the business (time to market).
The Power Platform embodies the whole idea of bringing advanced technologies to the ‘masses’. First with BI and PowerBI, now more and more with the development of apps on PowerApps and Flow. Microsoft refers to this new generation of developers as Citizen Developers, end users able to develop applications by using intelligent tools without the need for coding or deep IT knowledge. A great example of this approach by Autoglass UK (in Belgium known as Carglass) was shown during one of the corenotes, where an employee created an app for vehicle tracking, saving the company $1.6M yearly. (see video).
Many sessions at the conference covered the Intelligent Cloud and Intelligent Edge. With the Azure IoT Edge, part of the logic or data stays at Edge devices or appliances (‘on premises’). Imagine an intelligent security camera looking at images (and storing and interpreting lots of images ‘locally’) only transmitting those images that matter to Azure in the Cloud for future processing. With Azure Stack all the Azure (Cloud) services can run on-premises (read more). There was one interesting session on Financial Services where the CTO of the Anglo-Gulf Trade Bank explained how they become the world’s first trade finance bank entirely in the (Microsoft) Cloud (read more).
image by Brian Smale and Microsoft
Satya Nadella's core note on Wednesday morning, was (as expected) well attended. Always good to hear directly from Microsoft’s CEO what the main focus areas are from Microsoft’s perspective: AI, Azure, data, Cloud computing, but also trust, culture, vision, capabilities and people’s potential. Satya addressed the developers many times during his speech, referring specifically to Github, the world-leading collaboration platform for developers (acquired by Microsoft in 2018) saying "if you're not familiar with this, you will be.” GitHub serves today almost 40 Million developers and manages petabytes of code. Actually it is like the largest ‘undo’ button for developers in the world.
An average Ford car today contains 150,000 lines of code, 50 billion of IoT devices expected by 2050, clearly, there is a lot more to expect from collaborative data environments. Managing data from millions or even billions of devices requires ultra-large databases, beyond the current limitations (16TB per database for SQL Server). A demo during the core note of Satya demonstrated how Hyperscale SQL on Azure can handle a database larger than 200TB while using more than 2000 cores. (see the video).
Citizen developers, no or low code application development, AI tools that learn how you work instead of you figuring out how tools work, all examples of what you could call ‘Democratizing Digital’. We might reach human parity thanks to all the artificial intelligence services and technologies, the question remains if there is digital parity with humans. Will everybody be able to use all these tools and technologies, because even while ‘no-code’ might be perceived as simple, most of these technologies have the potential of bringing more complexity to our day-to-day lives.
Democratizing Digital, or in other words, claiming that everybody is able to set up an AI solution to solve a business challenge, or to simplify one or the other complex or time-consuming process, is great but might result in a proliferation of initiatives, often initiated by the business without the interference of an IT department. This might wake up IT to redefine themselves but also implies the need for a holistic view on business, processes, and systems. A huge opportunity for (enterprise) architects to analyze the business structure and processes to make sure AI solutions land in an effective way. Other opportunities are related to adapted governance and readiness of the workforce. A lot of work in front of us but for sure…. Exciting times!