The cloud, artificial intelligence, Microsoft 365 and the “intelligent edge.” These were some of the major themes underpinning a flurry of announcements at Microsoft Build, the company’s big developer conference in Seattle this week.
SPECIAL COVERAGE: Microsoft Build 2018
Though this conference doesn’t typically feature flashy hardware announcements, it details under-the-hood changes to help developers, both third-party and internal, build new apps and experiences for customers. While many of these announcements won’t be generally available for awhile, the major initiatives at this conference can foreshadow the company’s direction for the coming year and beyond.
Consistent with a recent pledge to spend $5 billion on Internet of Things, Microsoft went heavy on apps and services for connected devices. There was plenty of talk about unifying the experience between Windows 10, Android and iOS devices, a move that is happening out of necessity following the decline of the Windows Phone and associated operating system. Microsoft’s digital assistant Cortana made a few appearances, Kinect returned in a new form and the company made developers happy with a few small changes that might go a long way.
Continue reading for the biggest announcements from the three-day conference, and check out all our coverage here.
Cortana and Alexa finally get together – It was surreal to see an Amazon executive on stage at this Microsoft event, almost as crazy as seeing the two companies’ digital assistants talk to each other. The long-promised integrations between Alexa and Cortana didn’t impress everyone, and both companies acknowledged the partnership is in early days. But the ability to get Cortana to read off a calendar from an Echo device after using Alexa to book an Uber, represents the start of a new era envisioned by both Amazon and Microsoft where users rely on multiple digital assistants for different tasks. The Alexa-Cortana experiment is still in beta testing, but Microsoft has a website to update people as the partnership progresses.
More tools to break down walls between devices – Following up on a plan first introduced a year ago, Microsoft announced a number of new apps and tools meant to make it easier to seamlessly shift between Windows machines and smartphones running competing operating systems. The newly unveiled Your Phone app provides a direct connection between smartphones and Windows PCs, allowing users to quickly pull texts and photos off their phones. Updates to Microsoft Launcher for Android and the arrival of Timeline in the most recent Windows update make it easier for users to pick up where they left off, regardless of which device they were working on.
Opening up the edge – From a cloud services standpoint, Build 2018 was remarkably focused on the internet of things, which promises to generate a ton of new data that will have to be managed somehow. Microsoft’s decision to open-source the runtime — the basic connection between a device and its associated cloud services — for its IoT Edge service allows customers to tweak that runtime for their own needs, and that’s very important to companies facing the natural constraints of building IoT applications. It’s also yet another sign that Microsoft is delivering on its promise to be more involved in the open source world, a shift that was unthinkable even five years ago.
Special chips for special AI tasks – Microsoft first announced this effort last year but brought it over to Azure as a preview service this week at Build. Project Brainwave is a set of hardware instructions that accelerates the performance of artificial intelligence calculations on a specialized chip from Intel called a field-programmable gate array (FPGA). This means Azure customers will be able to perform complex AI work on things like image recognition much faster than on standard hardware, potentially unlocking new types of applications and saving them a little money at the same time.
A $25 million commitment to help people with disabilities through AI – Artificial intelligence has rapidly become a key pillar in everything Microsoft does, and that includes initiatives to solve big societal problems. The latest is a $25 million commitment over five years to develop AI-powered technologies to help people with disabilities. Microsoft said it will award seed grants of its technology to universities, developers, institutions and others; help scale promising ideas; and work with partners to incorporate more accessibility functions in their products. The AI for Accessibility initiative follows the blueprint of Microsoft’s previous AI for Earth push, a five-year, $50 million investment that aims to put Microsoft’s vast AI resources in the hands of groups looking to solve issues related to climate change, water, agriculture, biodiversity and more.
More money in developers’ pockets – Application developers — the true audience for Build — got some good news this week when Microsoft decided to reduce its cut of app revenue for apps sold in the Microsoft Store, with the exception of games. Instead of 70 percent across the board, developers will now get to keep 85 percent of revenue if Microsoft delivered them a customer, and 95 percent if they acquired that customer on their own. Gaming drives a ton of app revenue, but this move provides an interesting incentive for developers to work on supporting Windows with their apps.
Powering the Internet of Things – Keeping in line with the IoT theme, Microsoft resurrected the old Kinect brand name for new sensor-driven hardware. But unlike the version developed for the Xbox, Project Kinect is a reference design for putting cameras, sensors and processing power into small packages that have special requirements. Microsoft Cloud + AI leader Scott Guthrie told us this could be used along with AI algorithms to create “near-real-time, instantaneous experiences on the edge.”
Microsoft really does love Linux – This is probably the most esoteric thing Microsoft announced this week at Build, but it was maybe the only thing that generated a spontaneous, sustained roar of approval from the gallery of developers. Notepad — the simple text editor that has been in Windows since the Reagan administration — now supports proper line-ending formatting that is a vital part of Linux coding. Sometimes it’s the little things
Drones take center stage – Microsoft announced a number of new partnerships this week with major companies like Qualcomm and Red Hat, but it was a deal with drone maker DJI that got the most attention. Microsoft is teaming up with the Chinese company to develop commercial drone solutions for sectors including agriculture, construction and public safety, seeking to extend Windows 10 and the Microsoft Azure platform to new devices and industrial applications.The alliance, detailed on the first day of the conference as a drone zipped around the stage, plays into Microsoft’s focus on what it calls the “intelligent edge,” the practice of devices running in the field without a persistent dependence on the cloud.
Redefining the browsing experience – We’re all used to tabs in web-browsing, but Microsoft is doubling down on that concept with Sets. This feature creates a window that shows both app and browser tabs in the same place. Additionally, Microsoft is reportedly testing major changes to its Alt-Tab interface to integrate Sets and make it easier to bounce around between tabs. These features, as well some of the new apps like Your Phone are not available yet, and Microsoft’s Joe Belfiore said during the event that the company is taking its time to make sure the experiences are right before shipping the tools.