Microsoft’s Ignite conference takes place next week in Orlando, Florida. The company has been sending out a series of releases in the weeks leading up to the conference and is sure to continue doing so throughout the event. While we have some indication of what will likely be big next week, the details are still under wraps. But what you can be sure of is Azure will be at center stage for most of the event.

One final release to note this week is one designed to make it easier for IT to manage their Microsoft environments. The new Microsoft Managed Desktop (MMD) brings together Microsoft 365 Enterprise, device-as-a-service, and cloud-based device management by Microsoft.

The release, according to a blog post by Bill Karagounis, general manager for Microsoft, is designed to respond to multiple problems IT and business leaders face, notably keeping data secure and up to date while still providing more business value through superlative user experiences.

MMD customers will get preconfigured hardware running Windows 10, Microsoft 365 Enterprise subscriptions, cloud-based device management, and Microsoft-managed security and feature updates. The technology allows Microsoft to scan and monitor enrolled devices, and push out security patches, operating system upgrades and software updates to the kit as necessary.

“Our goal with MMD is to provide a great experience for users while keeping devices secure and up to date. MMD relies on the power of Microsoft 365, running in a consistent, lightweight, reference architecture that continues to evolve to allow our customers to take full advantage of our intelligent security capabilities to protect them from nascent threats,” Karagouni wrote.

Microsoft 365 is an integrated bundle of Windows 10, Office 365 and Enterprise Mobility + Security (aka EMS, which includes Intune device management, analytics and some Azure Active Directory capabilities), sold on a subscription basis. Microsoft has placed analytics at the heart of MMD to give users insights into everything that is going on across the IT infrastructure. It is using analytics to provide operational and security insights as well as AI to determine which devices are ready for feature updates or, conversely, whether a specific app is blocking a device’s ability to update.

The exact costs of MMD will vary per user according to the type of device and size of the customer. The company is doing a gradual roll out of the product, starting with a limited roll out in the US and UK, followed by Canada, Australia and New Zealand in early 2019 and plans for a broader release in late 2019.

Walmart Introduces Virtual Reality to Employee Training

Just look who’s turning to virtual reality — none other than retail giant Walmart. Bentonville, Ark-headquartered Walmart is introducing virtual reality technology to its employee training and development at Walmart Academies across the US. Virtual reality refers to a computer-generated simulation of a three-dimensional image, or environment, that can be interacted with in a seemingly real or physical way by a person using special electronic equipment, such as a helmet with a screen inside or gloves fitted with sensors.

According to the company the move has been a major success. In fact, so much so that it is providing Oculus VR headsets to all stores in the US to bring the same level of training to more than one million Walmart associates. This will bring VR training to nearly 5,000 stores across the United States and 17,000 headsets to stores by the end of the year. The program will start this month and will see the company send four Oculus Go headsets to every Walmart Supercenter and two to every Neighborhood Market and Discount Store.

“The great thing about VR is its ability to make learning experiential,” said Andy Trainor, Walmart’s senior director of Walmart US Academies in a statement. “When you watch a module through the headset, your brain feels like you actually experienced a situation. We’ve also seen that VR training boosts confidence and retention while improving test scores 10 to 15 percent — even those associates who simply watched others experience the training saw the same retention boosts.”

The headsets are built on Menlo Park, Calif.-based STRIVR’s platform, which delivers realistic, repeatable and scalable training content. STRIVR is also used by other corporations and sports teams to improve performance of individuals.

Is this a sign of things to come in the digital workplace? A Claromentis blog post earlier this year discussed the potential of VR and augmented reality to create multiple layers of information for business communication, collaboration and control. One of the most significant factors abetting AR in particular's rise is that the equipment required to deliver the experience is already widely available: a mobile phone. The blog argues that Apple's announcement that it would add an "AR chip" to future mobile phones is a signal of how widespread AR is about to become. 

Organizations with truly integrated digital workplaces can already gather, share and collaborate on huge amounts of data, across the world, instantly. AR will serve to lift that into three dimensional representations. There are clearly many different use cases for this, but with retailers like Walmart signing up, its likely we will see a lot more AR and VR in the enterprise in 2019.

Twitter's Chronological Feed Resurrects

San Francisco-based Twitter has announced it is bringing back chronological timelines after having got rid of them two years ago to the dismay of many users. It made the announcement over a series of tweets. Over the coming weeks, it stated, users will be able to fully opt out of “curated” timelines, in which algorithmically determined “top-ranked” tweets are shown first.

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In the first of a series of six tweets, the company stated it is trying to give users more control of their timelines. It added later: “So, we’re working on providing you with an easily accessible way to switch between a timeline of Tweets that are most relevant for you and a timeline of the latest Tweets. You’ll see us test this in the coming weeks.”

1/ We’re working on new ways to give you more control over your timeline. But first, some context: Twitter helps you see what’s happening by showing the best Tweets for you based on your interactions.

— Twitter Support (@TwitterSupport) 17 September 2018

Users previously had limited ability to turn off the curation function, which is listed as “Show the best tweets first,” in Twitter’s settings menu. The company is restoring the chronological view following high volumes of unhappy user feedback. By unchecking the “show the best tweets first” option in settings, people will once again be returned to their chronological feed. 

It may not be the top collaboration tool in the enterprise, but workers use Twitter to exchange information daily and even hourly. The new capability should be available in the coming weeks.

Google Launches Work Insights

Meanwhile, Google's G Suite is launching a new Work Insights tool that show managers whether and how employees are using productivity apps like Docs, Sheets and Slides. The product, currently in beta, will let IT admins see if employees might need training for certain apps and indicate how much teams are collaborating.

According to a Google blog post, "With Work Insights, we aim to bring you executive-level insights into how G Suite is increasing collaboration and improving workplace culture at your organization. Use the Work Insights dashboard to see how your organization’s G Suite usage is changing over time in the following areas:

  • Adoption: Which teams are adopting G Suite and which apps they use most frequently.
  • Collaboration: How are teams working together through meetings, file sharing, and document co-editing.
  • Activity: Which apps teams are spending time in and how much time they’re spending in meetings."

To avoid infringement of personal privacy, Google stated team insights will only be shown for teams of 10 people or more and that if necessary, this limit can be changed upwards. The resulting insights therefore show user trends rather than individual usage.

Work Insights mirrors Microsoft's own Workplace Analytics tools, though with fewer in-depth features. The company plans a limited beta roll out to organizations with G Suite Enterprise and Enterprise for Education editions only, with access restricted to admins.

Sapho Integrates Machine Learning Into Workers' Apps

Finally this week, San Bruno-Calif.-based Sapho, has announced that the latest version of its Employee Experience Portal integrates machine learning into the applications employees use every day. The Sapho platform now identifies shifts in data from employees’ business applications and intelligence systems to give them the most relevant information.

For example, Sapho will notify a manager when her team’s monthly travel expenses increase over a certain threshold, or notify a marketer when web traffic sees a downturn or uptick. It also allows employees to circumvent a manual search and ask questions like “What’s the status of the ACME deal,” in Microsoft Teams and receive the information. The machine learning capabilities also learn over time which data irregularities, system updates, and business intelligence shifts are relevant to their work, and will automatically surface that information to the employees who require the information.