Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella delivers the keynote at Microsoft Ignite 2019
PHOTO: Microsoft

By all accounts this year’s Microsoft Ignite conference was a blast. The annual customer conference is always a big draw in the enterprise technology space, but this year, Microsoft went to town. The Redmond, Wash.-based giant made literally dozens of announcements, while its partner companies and vendors scrambled to match Microsoft’s announcements with something that aims to make those offerings better.

But the focus of the show remained firmly on Microsoft as it announced releases around Azure, Microsoft 365, Office and Yammer — the latter which looks to have finally found its place in the digital workplace. Take Microsoft 365, for example. The company announced upgrades in six key areas including: productivity, knowledge, workflow, security, compliance and management.

According to Jared Spataro, corporate vice president for Microsoft 365, the single biggest consistent theme across these new features is the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to deliver new experiences to grow productivity.

1. Microsoft 365 Productivity

What does this mean in practice? Well, in terms of Microsoft 365, better productivity means added AI to enable improved collaboration as well as introducing AI in writing, presenting, organizing and managing work.

In practical terms this means Microsoft has taken another step in breaking down silos by improving search across the Microsoft and Office 365 suites. At Ignite, Microsoft pushed the following features into general availability:

  • People search with attributes: Enables search of name, title, location and name spelling.
  • Acronym search: Users will be able to view acronyms that currently live in their email, SharePoint, OneDrive and publicly shared documents. This is another featured that is driven by AI.
  • Floorplan search: Allows users find a person’s location, pinpoint a person’s office location or search across building maps.

There were other related announcements, but in private preview. The most notable is the addition of semantic search. With intelligent, natural language search capabilities in Microsoft Search, users can now type out their search as if they were having a normal conversation and the engine can better understand the semantic meaning or user intent.

2. Yammer Gets a Redesign

The news about the re-imagining of Yammer will be a welcome addition for many workplaces. Yammer has been entirely redesigned, with dozens of new capabilities — and integrations with Microsoft Teams, SharePoint and Outlook — that were built to power engagement, company-wide communication, and enable leaders to connect openly and at scale.

 

As Microsoft’s first app built from the ground up with the Fluent Design System, Microsoft claims the new Yammer design provides an engaging and easy-to-use experience. And, as part of Microsoft 365, people can connect and share knowledge across the organization with open conversation backed by enterprise-grade privacy, security and compliance.

 

The result is users can now use Yammer to broadcast live and on-demand events with a streamlined production option that uses webcams and desktop sharing. They will also be able to share video shorts directly from the Yammer mobile app. In addition, it comes with centralized e-Discovery, data governance and Yammer administration in the Microsoft 365 admin center.

3. Microsoft Teams Meets Outlook

Microsoft Teams, you will recall, is Microsoft’s hub for teamwork. According to Microsoft and in response to enterprise demand, Microsoft is introducing private channels, multi-window chats, meetings and calls, pinned channels and task integration with To Do and Planner.

Many of these are features already available through competitor Slack. Microsoft, no doubt with an eye on the competition, is responding by introducing these new Teams functionalities. However, as we have seen before, Microsoft is providing new functionality at a steady clip in an effort to offer better collaboration to people already signed up to Microsoft and Office 365.

However, the really interesting news in this respect is the improved collaboration capabilities between Outlook and Teams, making it easy to send an email thread to a Teams channel for further discussion.

This will allow Teams users to move and share an email (and all of its attachments) into a chat channel. A new “Share to Teams” button will be made available inside Outlook early next year, and it simply moves an email into Microsoft Teams. It will allow employees using Teams to have a private conversation about an email thread or simply bridge the gap between the systems a little easier and bring Microsoft one step closer to providing workers with a single place to work.

4. AI in Microsoft Office

Microsoft Office has also benefited from new artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities after the introduction of improvements to Excel data entry, Presenter Coach in PowerPoint and audio transcription in Word last year.

Microsoft has introduced support for natural language queries in Excel so users can ask a question of their data, just like they would if they were talking to a person and without having to write a formula. Available to Office Insiders, this new natural language ability is another step towards making data insights and visualization more approachable and accessible to users with various levels of Excel experience.

There is also a new mobile experience for Office that combines three of the suite’s most popular apps — Word, Excel and PowerPoint — into a single go-to app for mobile productivity. As a result, users no longer need to download each app separately and will have what they need to be productive on the go. The new Actions pane aims to offer a more intuitive way to complete a variety of common on-the-go tasks, such as creating and signing PDFs and sharing files between devices.

5. Fluid Framework Gets a Public Preview

Even with all that, the top collaboration news from Ignite has to be the introduction of the Fluid Framework. Fluid was unveiled at Build earlier this year and offers a number of new ‘experiences’ that will enable collaboration. In all it introduces three key capabilities:

  • Support for multi-person co-authoring on web and document content scale.
  • Provides a componentized document model that allows authors to deconstruct content into collaborative building.
  • The Fluid Framework makes room for intelligent agents to work alongside humans to translate text, fetch content, suggest edits, perform compliance checks and more.

Fluid Framework has now entered into public preview for the end-user experience and a private preview for developers. Future plans include pulling this across Microsoft 365, within chat in Teams, mail in Outlook and portals in SharePoint.

6. Cortana as a Productivity Assistant

This is likely to be another popular addition to the digital workplace and takes another step towards making Cortana a personal productivity assistant. With the addition of new functionalities such as Play My Emails in Outlook for iOS which, using new natural voice and language recognition, can read out new emails and share changes to your day. A masculine voice option is also now available with Play My Emails, further customizing your personal productivity assistant experience.

Alongside the Outlook for iOS changes, Microsoft is also generating a daily briefing email through Cortana that will include a summary of meetings and important documents. This will be available for Office 365 users in the US in the coming weeks.