Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella delivers the keynote at Microsoft Ignite 2018

The great thing about predicting what will happen at Microsoft’s annual Ignite conference is that it is just about impossible to get it wrong. Microsoft has its finger in so many pies now that every single aspect of enterprise computing will get a hearing at the five day event, which kicked off this morning in Orlando, Fla.

For example, Dux Raymond-Sy, chief marketing officer at Jersey City, NJ-based AvePoint, is expecting a number of announcements around teams and teamwork, which would be unsurprising given the importance of Office 365, Microsoft 365 and Teams. "At Microsoft Ignite, I expect that we’ll hear more about how Microsoft 365 — with Microsoft Teams at the forefront — is empowering modern teams to work better together, communicate more dynamically and collaborate effectively to achieve better results," he told CMSWire.

As a part of Microsoft’s commitment to transforming teamwork, he added, it is also likely we'll hear a lot about recent innovations with SharePoint, which will shape modern content and information management. In this respect he cites the example of the fusing of machine learning and AI into SharePoint online, which will help users increase their productivity while keeping their content more secure, as well as how the launch of SharePoint 2019 will further enable hybrid connectivity.

For Ryan Duguid, chief evangelist at Bellevue, Wash.-based Nintex, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s vision of empowering everyone in the workplace to become more productive means we'll likely see many announcements around new features that will increase the power of Azure and Office. "The company is lining up news around its two biggest franchises — Office and Azure — with a clear focus on the information worker and developer,” he said.

Duguid added that within the Office 365 space, expect to hear a lot of talk of artificial intelligence and machine learning: "On the Azure side, we can expect continued investments in the platform, but the battle here for Microsoft is with Amazon, IBM and Google. But what is more interesting in AI and ML, is practical application of it." IBM and Salesforce talk about practical applications with Watson and Einstein. However, Microsoft Office 365 is starting to do this by looking at data in SharePoint and inferring things from the data. “Outside of Azure, I think we’ll see a shift in how Microsoft talks about AI and ML with the focus on practical applications that a computer performs,” he said.

1. Artificial Intelligence

So what can we expect to be announced related to AI over the coming days? Cortana, which Microsoft has been talking about a lot over the last year, should come up frequently. We know already, for example, that Microsoft will be expanding the reach of the Cortana Skills Kit for Enterprise, which is currently available by invitation only, and which allows enterprises to use Cortana to do company-specific tasks. Microsoft has already indicated that this development is just the start of a journey into a world where voice and natural language will become the primary means of interacting with our digital workplace tools.

Azure Machine Learning is getting an update which makes it possible for non data-scientists to build and train machine learning models to make predictions from data. These models can then be deployed anywhere — in the cloud, on premises or at the edge. At the center of this update is the new Automated Machine Learning, an AI tool that automatically selects, tests and tweaks machine learning models that power many of today’s AI systems. The offering is aimed at making AI development more accessible to a broader set of customers.

Microsoft has been investing in AI for years, but its efforts have taken on a new lease on life with recent releases like the new chatbot Zo, Cortana Devices SDK and Skills Kit as well as the expansion of intelligence tools. Harry Shum, executive vice president of Microsoft’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Research group, pointed out to a small gathering on AI in San Francisco last December that enterprises are beginning to witness the early days of a transition to the next big platform shift in computing, one that is fueled by advances in AI and built around a behavior that is most natural to humans — conversations. Expect to hear a lot about that over the next five days.

Related Article: Microsoft Lays Out Its AI Ambitions

2. Internet of Things

Microsoft isn't likely the first company that springs to mind when you think about Internet of Things (IoT). However, in much the same way the company reinvented itself as a cloud company over the past five years, Microsoft is working to change that, largely because enterprises are starting to look to IoT as the next business frontier. A decade ago, if a company wanted to connect assets they had to build out costly data centers and build all their functionality from scratch. That has already changed, with Microsoft now offering a way to furnish their IoT environments from Azure IoT Central.

Azure IoT Central is a fully managed software-as-a-service (SaaS) offering that enables customers, partners to provision an IoT solution in less than a minute, customize it in a few hours and go to production the same day all without requiring any cloud solution development expertise, and it is now being pushed into general availability.

If anyone doubts how serious Microsoft is about IoT, they need only look at Microsoft's IoT announcement last April. In the announcement, Julia White, CVP of Azure explained the company plans to invest $5 billion in the IoT over the next four years to give customers a way to connected al their solution solutions together to create operational efficiencies

Microsoft’s IoT offerings today include what businesses need to get started, ranging from operating systems for devices, to cloud services to control and secure them, as well advanced analytics to enable 360° views. Expect a lot more on this over the coming days.

Related Article: Build 2018 Showcases Microsoft's Progress

3. Search

At the heart of all this is data and finding data. Microsoft has always had a big search play. At Ignite last year, it introduced personalized search across Office 365 as a way to bring intelligent search and discovery experiences directly to the enterprise worker. This year it is extending this to Microsoft 365. 

In a statement in the run-up to the conference, Microsoft said it is evolving the notion of what search means. Getting pages of results with hyperlinks to other information is simply not enough. Faced with ever-decreasing attention spans and an explosion of data, the company said it recognized that the challenge is to find and deliver answers to questions, suggest insights, and enable people to take action on tasks. This means that whatever it does with search is likely to happen across all its apps and across all its services.

Jeff Teper, CVP of Office, pointed out in a blog published today that all of this is built around Microsoft Graph. Microsoft Graph gleans insight from the people, sites, devices and documents you work with. Going forward, Microsoft planes to supercharge the Microsoft Graph with advanced AI technology from Bing and the information it can surface. This, Teper wrote, will make it simple to ask questions in natural language and get real answers, without manual intervention. This is another one to watch out for over the week.

Related Article: 6 Mistakes to Avoid With Microsoft's Hybrid Search

4. Security

Finally, all of the announcements this week will be built around ongoing development of Microsoft’s security strategy. Microsoft has already indicated it will be announcing a range of security improvements that are designed to secure enterprises as they undergo digital transformations. Among them are Microsoft Secure Score, a dynamic report card that assesses Microsoft 365 customer environments and makes recommendations that can, according to the company, reduce breaches thirtyfold. It is also announcing Microsoft Authenticator, which helps make secure sign-on easier for workers, with features like password-free login.

It is impossible to list all the security announcements that are on the way but security, like all its other areas of computing, will be driven by AI and cloud. Take Azure, for example. Cloud workloads are often targeted by cybercriminals because they operate on some of the most sensitive data an organization has. Azure will offer confidentiality and integrity of data while in use through Azure Confidential Computing, which will be available soon on a new DC series of virtual machines in Azure.

These are just four of the areas that Microsoft is likely to make a big push on this year. Expect to see many more announcements related to Teams, Office 365, SharePoint and Microsoft 365.