If you thought Microsoft was simply a productivity company, think again. CEO Satya Nadella kicked off this year’s Microsoft Ignite 2019 Conference in Orlando, Fla. with a big sky vision for the company:
“How do we power every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more? It starts with one. One employer. One developer. One organization. From one employee to a team collaborating with another team. From one organization to their customers, to their customers' customers. Helping local communities creating jobs. Increasing productivity for the global economy. Our society. Our world. That's the impact. That's the impact. That's the impact each of us can have. That's our opportunity. 100,000 plus employees. 75 million organizations. 7 billion people on the planet. 100 to 75 to 7. To make every small business more productive. To make every large business more competitive. To make nonprofits more effective. To make government institutions more responsive. To expand access to education. To improve health care outcomes and to amplify human ingenuity. When we empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more, we empower the world.”
To empower the world .... You can’t have a much bigger vision than this, and this may be appropriate for the world’s most (or second most) valuable company, but it does create expectations.
Nadella didn’t disappoint during the nearly 2-hour keynote address. In addition to the expected product and services announcements around core businesses like Azure and Microsoft 365, Nadella also talked about Microsoft’s growing focus on cutting edge information technologies such as quantum computing, silica-based data storage, and AI-based autonomous systems.
Thinking Big: Beyond Productivity Tools
The keynote started with announcements of new capabilities in Azure and associated services, including Azure Arc, a “hyperscale solution for deploying massive cloud infrastructures quickly,” and Azure Synapse Analytics, “an analytics service, that brings together enterprise data warehousing and Big Data analytics.”
Next, Nadella introduced Azure Quantum, a set of tools to help developers build quantum computing solutions. Nadella highlighted Microsoft’s unique offering of quantum services on traditional computing platforms.
One of the most innovative announcements was Project Silica, a revolutionary new data storage technology based on “recent discoveries in ultrafast laser optics to store data in quartz glass by using femtosecond lasers.” Working together with Warner Bros., Nadella demonstrated how Microsoft was able to store the entire 1978 Superman movie on a single piece of glass that he pulled out his pocket. Nadella stopped short of announcing a product, but clearly showed an interest in expanding into this area of production.
Following on feature announcements for the Microsoft 365 productivity suite, Nadella introduced Project Cortex, a heretofore secret and ambitious undertaking to use AI to deliver insights and expertise to knowledge workers via the Microsoft Office 365 apps they already use. The idea is to harness collective knowledge captured in the Microsoft Graph to “empower people and teams to learn, upskill and innovate faster.” As a concept I have championed for years, the idea is to connect data floating around in the organization and to present it to a knowledge worker organized by the topics they care about: product, projects and services. I will cover Project Cortex in more detail in another article.
Not Your Grandfather’s Microsoft
Nadella’s grand vision for Microsoft is not new, but I believe this week’s announcements herald a new era for Microsoft. As the revelations described in the previous section detail, Microsoft is going far beyond providing mere productivity tools. Microsoft has become a credible one-stop juggernaut for all things’ IT for business; from the hardware, to the cloud infrastructure and services, to security and compliance solutions, all the way to the end user apps and tools running on Microsoft-powered devices. AI capabilities are expanding to encompass everything from helping coach a worker preparing a presentation, to analyzing how each employee uses their time through workplace analytics.
But with this power of domination and clout comes big responsibility. When an organization’s complete set of operational data resides in the Office 365 and Azure clouds, Microsoft is uniquely positioned to offer exclusive services, like analyzing user behavior to enhance workers’ experiences, or presenting the most relevant information to each worker when appropriate.
But the same technology that empowers a worker or organization can also be used to disenfranchise. While, Microsoft has been singularly vocal in the industry about advocating for ethical AI and privacy around analytics, at the end of the day, analytics and AI are a double-edged sword; they can be used for good or evil. As Microsoft’s grip on organizations’ information lifelines increase, let’s hope they are up to the challenge; a challenge other technology titans have so far failed to live up to.
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