There are a number of conferences worth more than the usual cursory glance. Microsoft Ignite is one of them. Ignite sets out the Redmond, Wash.-based software giant's agenda for the year, unveils new ideas and gives users a lot more insight into what has happened over the year.

There are others. Facebook Connect, Google I/O and Salesforce’s Dreamforce all merit a look, but in terms of the digital workplace and productivity technology, Ignite is really the big one. This year’s Ignite conference, held virtually from Nov. 2 – 4, was no different.

According to Microsoft, more than 100,000 people attended from around the world and across variety of industries. They heard announcements about Microsoft 365, Azure, Dynamics 365, Security, Power Platform and AI. Behind it all is the Microsoft Cloud, powering an organization’s digital capability while providing the safeguards necessary to keep data confidential and secure.

Digital technology will be more necessary than ever, for every organization in every sector. Among the dozens of announcements at Ignite that were worth a look, here are the ones that stood out for the digital workplace.

Getting Into the Office Loop

Office Loop is not entirely new in that it has been around for a while in the shape of Fluid.

The Fluid Framework was introduced at Ignite 2019 in public preview and was designed to enable users to collaborate on dynamic content and create connected components that can be shared simultaneously and seamlessly across apps. As a result, tables, charts and task lists can be inserted in Outlook for the web. Users can then create and manage workspaces within documents or activity feeds, recommended lists and @mentions, or search for them across

This evolution of Fluid, known as Microsoft Loop, is a new app that combines a flexible canvas with portable components that move and stay in sync across apps, enabling teams to think, plan and create together. Loop components can be as simple as lists, tables, notes, and tasks, or as sophisticated as a customer sales opportunity from Microsoft Dynamics 365. Because components stay in sync no matter how many places they live in, teams can always work with the latest information.

Microsoft will also be adding new components to enable business workflows, starting with Dynamics 365 records. Third-party application developers will also be able to build Loop components by extending their existing message extensions applications and Microsoft Graph connector integrations.

There is not much more on this development, but Microsoft does say it will provide more detail at its Build conference next year. What happens between now and then is anyone’s guess, but given the reality of hybrid work for the foreseeable future, Loop is likely to become an important part of the workplace.

Mesh Is on the Way to Microsoft Teams

Ignite also featured major news from Teams, which is no surprise given Microsoft’s ambitions to make it the center of the workplace. While there are regular updates to the platform, the introduction of Mesh for Microsoft Teams will make meetings and video communication easier and more efficient willing to take the plunge into mixed reality.

Microsoft Teams meetings has already evolved with current features like Grid View, Together Mode and Presenter View effectively offering 2D immersive meeting experiences. Mesh for Microsoft Teams means the next leap for 2D and 3D experiences is on the horizon. 

Mesh for Microsoft Teams will enable new experiences with personalized avatars and immersive spaces where users can connect with presence and have shared immersive experiences. With avatars, users can maintain their presence in meetings without turning on cameras. Users can also connect with eye contact and express emotions using live reactions that will be represented through their avatars.

The result is that organizations will be able to create immersive spaces that resemble physical spaces, such as conference rooms, design centers and networking lounges to enhance camaraderie, spark creativity and foster connections around the virtual water cooler.

According to Microsoft, Mesh for Microsoft Teams bridges the gap between physical and digital, and lets users connect between devices wherever they choose to live and work from. These experiences will be available as part of Teams on PC and mobile and through mixed-reality headsets.

Because Microsoft Mesh and Teams are secure and scalable, organizations will have control of their data by default. In addition, users can leverage existing documents, presentations and content from Microsoft 365 and share and collaborate using this content spatially. Teams users will be able to access these Microsoft Mesh-enabled capabilities in preview in the first half of 2022.

There was a lot more for Teams announced during the conference so it's worth taking a look at the proceedings for more details.

Related Article: Microsoft Mesh Aims to Make Mixed Reality Mainstream

Learning Opportunities

Microsoft's Metaverse Ambitions Meet (Mixed) Reality

Facebook is not the only company that is plotting out its future for the metaverse. In fact, Microsoft is moving forward into the metaverse with a lot less noise than Facebook in recent weeks, and is already planning how to tie some of its tools into this evolving virtual shared space. 

Over the past few weeks amidst all the furor around Facebook rebranding with a view to developing the metaverse, Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, has also been talking about the metaverse, but in what appears to be a lot more manageable and practical fashion. His vision of the metaverse is quite precise and involves tying in Microsoft apps and platforms to build a working 3D virtual office.

As enterprises accelerate their digital transformation, Nadella said during Ignite, the metaverse can help people meet up in a digital environment, make meetings more comfortable with the use of avatars, and facilitate creative collaboration from all around the world.

Behind it all is the Microsoft Cloud, which provides a set of resources designed to power metaverses (there will be more than one), and IoT capabilities that enable customers to create “digital twins” of physical objects in the cloud. They will also be able to use Microsoft Mesh to build a shared sense of presence on devices, and use AI-powered resources to create natural interactions through speech and vision machine learning models.

And it’s more than just theory. There are some concrete steps forward, specifically with:

  • Dynamics 365 Connected Spaces: Now in preview, this product provides a new perspective on the way people move and interact with nearly any space, from the retail store to the factory floor, and how they manage health and safety in a hybrid work environment.
  • Mesh for Microsoft Teams: Everyone in a meeting can be present without being physically present using personalized avatars and immersive spaces that can be accessed from any device without special equipment.

And yes, we already talked about Mesh and Teams in its own right and context, which should not be a surprise given Microsoft’s well publicized strategy of pulling everything together into a single digital workplace built around Teams.

Viva Employee Experience News and Azure Data Platform Updates

And then there’s Viva, which launched at the beginning of February this year. Pitched as an employee experience platform, the goal is to tie engagement, learning, well-being and knowledge discovery into the flow of people’s work. Built around four elements — connections, insights, learning and topics — Viva got a lot of love at this year’s Ignite, too.

Microsoft Viva Insights is adding new features to help individuals and managers collaborate more effectively, while also building work habits and team norms that promote productivity and well-being in the flow of work. The updates include:

  • New insights and tools: These will help managers improve personal habits while fostering team culture, and will be available in the Viva Insights app and in manager cards in the daily briefing and monthly digest emails from Microsoft Viva starting this month.
  • Effective meetings experience: Available in the coming months in the Viva Insights app in Microsoft Teams, meeting organizers will be able to view personalized insights and suggestions to improve meeting habits. Users will also be able to create and share meeting plans to set team meeting norms, such as shorter meetings by default and always including Teams links.

Microsoft is also making Viva Learning generally available. In addition, customers can now purchase Microsoft Viva as a suite (also available with a Glint add-on) to gain access to all the generally available modules. Keep in mind that Microsoft also announced recently that it will be pushing, a recently acquired objectives and key results (OKR) company into the Viva suite.

All of this, of course, depends on effective data management. It's no surprise then that the Azure data platform also is getting updated, ranging from a first preview of the 2022 edition of its SQL Server line, to updates to the Azure Synapse Analytics platform, and new tools that make it easier to move Cassandra workloads to the cloud.

Microsoft has also launched updates to its Azure Cognitive Services suite, including invitation-only access to its models for security, compliance and other enterprise capabilities. Microsoft Azure Cognitive Search, for its part, now features support for more than 50 languages for select users.

For its part, Azure Cosmos DB is introducing a set of new features that make it easier for developers to build and maintain cost-effective application databases and easily migrate Apache Cassandra data to the cloud.

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