Satya Nadella at Microsoft Ignite 2017

Microsoft’s Envision and Ignite conferences kicked off in earnest today with CEO Satya Nadella’s highly anticipated Vision Keynote.

Introducing Nadella, Corporate VP Julia White extolled the conference as an opportunity for “sharing, connecting, learning from each other”.

Nadella prefaced his speech with gratitude, acknowledging the enormous hard work of the staff and community surrounding the Orange County Convention Center, which just weeks ago was hit by Hurricane Irma. It has previously been unclear, Nadella said, whether Ignite would go ahead, but thanks to the support of the community, Microsoft was able to stage the event, and is now assisting in the area’s recovery. Nadella expressed particular appreciation for the 10% of Ignite attendees that had traveled from places impacted by the recent spate of natural disasters.

Empowering collaboration with Microsoft 365

Nadella began by addressing the unprecedented levels of digital transformation that organizations across the world are currently undergoing. Every industry and every walk of life is being touched by digital technology, and Ignite, he forecasted, would allow technologists to build a broad perspective of how technology is changing industries.

Although the advances in digital transformation are exciting, Nadella was keen to stress that innovators, and technologists, in particular, must keep in mind the “timeless values” that drive technological progress. The question at the heart of innovation should always be; how are we going to use technology to empower people?

Every piece of technology should help embellish the capability of human beings,” Nadella stated, offering the example of the AI service that was translating his speech into 12 other languages in real time. Technology, he affirmed, should be inclusive, allowing everyone to be participating citizens.

The digital revolution, according to Microsoft, is no longer about deploying single systems, but about changing the culture inside of our organizations. New technologies and intelligence must work to foster a modern workplace, creating digital feedback loops to aid and improve collaboration.

HoloLens meets Teams

Work is no longer made up of routine tasks, Nadella said. And one of Microsoft’s latest products, Microsoft 365, is designed specifically to unlock a new culture of work, enable creativity in every person, and create dynamic teams, while ensuring simplicity and security of infrastructure.

Speaking about how collaboration and teamwork can be fundamentally transformed with things like mixed reality, Nadella spoke of a recent visit to Ford in Detroit, who are using MR in their research and development; a far cry from the 5000lb clay models designers used to sculpt by hand to design their products.

On the subject of MR and collaboration, Nadella welcomed Microsoft Teams Product Marketing Manager Raanah Amjadi to demonstrate how Ford ideates and designs new vehicles. With Microsoft Teams, designers and engineers can collaborate to discuss projects in real time, with holograms offering a tangible and testable digital version of their work.

Using a mobile phone to securely log into a HoloLens device, Amjadi showcased how participants can meet within a shared mixed reality space, allowing colleagues to chat, share information and add notes to a project in simultaneously.

Holograms allow teams to view and analyze the impact of new adjustments, such as adding a new wing mirror and experiencing the actual view that mirrors provide before making the change a reality. The HoloLens headset, due to hit shelves on October 17th, allows remote workers to participate in meetings from wherever they are, while after the meeting is over,  Teams’ timeline feature can offer a recap of key points, or even a transcript of the entire conference.

AI in the workplace

Nadella also touched on how their new innovations in business processes are not about developing individual tools, but rather creating the next platform for digital transformation. Microsoft 365, for example, uses its graph to construct a rich cloud service, and orchestrate new levels of collaboration. By generating strategic data assets from the knowledge, relationships, projects, and schedules of users, organizations can produce additional value that will assist them in customizing their solutions to their needs, and help nurture their own digital renovation.

Part of building that platform for the modern workplace, Nadella said, was putting focus on an AI first workplace. AI & Research Partner Group Program Manager Li-Chen Miller joined the keynote to discuss how AI and graphs are helping people be more connected both to each other and to their work.

Miller demonstrated how LinkedIn’s graph integrates with Microsoft 365 through Outlook, displaying the professional history of the person you’re emailing, as well as your personal shared communication history, with previous contact, files shared, and the option to connect via LinkedIn all present within the Outlook interface.

Another of Microsoft’s goals for their AI services, Miller said, was making search more personal, intelligent and contextual. New tool Bing for Business aims to do just that, by combining internet, SharePoint and other Microsoft 365 information, along with inline actions with integrated services, for more intuitive results. Bing for Business, now available for private preview, uses AI and machine reading to pull relevant content from SharePoint, displaying results not only based on a keyword match, but by understanding what its users are asking. Miller also demonstrated the extent of AI integration with Microsoft’s voice assistant system, telling Cortana; “Hey, I want to take a vacation next week”. In one of the most impressive feats of the keynote, Cortana then set up Miller’s out of office reply for the coming week, marked her as absent on her calendar, and entered the vacation time into the company’s HR system.

A modular future for Dynamics 365

Nadella also stressed the need for more modular, modern business apps that are role and workflow specific, rather than mammoth suites of applications; the very purpose of Dynamics 365. We saw how HP is using Dynamics 365 for Customer Service to promote higher efficiency, increasing the percentage of successfully resolved customer issues from around 15% to upwards of 70%, in part by using AI and virtual assistants.

At the core of Microsoft’s revolutionising of businesses’ apps and infrastructure, Nadella commented on how the democratising capabilities of Azure is giving companies the agility to continuously deploy new services, and build AI into apps, from Trimble using Azure and MR to build digital twins for mining industry,  and Land O’Lakes using precision agriculture to improve the yield of their tenant farmers, to university think-tank Inner Eye using AI to plan radiotherapy for cancer patients with better accuracy.

Nadella closed out the keynote by discussing Microsoft’s work to bring Quantum computing into reality, and their ongoing projects including creating a new domain-specific language, that would allow the programming of a scalable quantum computer.

The innovative CEO briefly looked to the past as he concluded his speech, repeating predecessor Bill Gates’ statement; “We tend to overestimate what we can achieve in the short run but underestimate what can be achieved in the long run.”

If the vision outlaid in this keynote is anything to go by, Microsoft is certainly working towards rectifying that tendency toward short-sightedness.

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