Nov
04
2019
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Microsoft launches the first public preview of its Fluid Framework for collaborative editing

One of the most interesting (and confusing) news announcements of Microsoft’s Build developer conference earlier this year was the first public demo of the company’s Fluid Framework. Fluid is meant to make building collaborative real-time editing experiences easier for developers, but Microsoft is also building it into some of its own tools, like Office and Outlook. It’s nothing less than a re-imagining of what documents should look and feel like.

Today, at its Ignite conference in Orlando, Fla., Microsoft launched the first public preview of the Fluid Framework end-user experience, as well as a private preview for developers.

As Microsoft notes, the Fluid Framework has three main capabilities: the multi-person co-authoring features, the componentized document model and the ability to plug in intelligent agents that can, for example, translate text in real-time or suggest edits. To some degree, this isn’t all that different from Google Docs or even Microsoft’s own collaboration features in Office. But what’s new is that Microsoft is opening this up to developers and that it is looking at the Fluid Framework as a new way to deconstruct and componentize documents, which can then be used across applications.

Microsoft plans to build the Fluid Framework into lots of experiences across Microsoft 365, including Teams, Outlook, SharePoint, OneNote and Office. If you want to see it in action, you can now try the public preview to see what editing documents with it feels like.

Nov
04
2019
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Cortana wants to be your personal executive assistant and read your emails to you, too

Only a few years ago, Microsoft hoped that Cortana could become a viable competitor to the Google Assistant, Alexa and Siri . Over time, as Cortana failed to make a dent in the marketplace (do you ever remember that Cortana is built into your Windows 10 machine?), the company’s ambitions shrunk a bit. Today, Microsoft wants Cortana to be your personal productivity assistant — and to be fair, given the overall Microsoft ecosystem, Cortana may be better suited to that than to tell you about the weather.

At its Ignite conference, Microsoft today announced a number of new features that help Cortana to become even more useful in your day-to-day work, all of which fit into the company’s overall vision of AI as a tool that is helpful and augments human intelligence.

Screen Shot 2019 10 31 at 3.25.48 PM

The first of these is a new feature in Outlook for iOS that uses Microsoft text-to-speech features to read your emails to you (using both a male and female voice). Cortana can also now help you schedule meetings and coordinate participants, something the company first demoed at previous conferences.

Starting next month, Cortana also will be able to send you a daily email that summarizes all of your meetings, and presents you with relevant documents and reminders to “follow up on commitments you’ve made in email.” This last part, especially, should be interesting, as it seems to go beyond the basic (and annoying) nudges to reply to emails in Google’s Gmail.

2019 11 01 0914

Nov
04
2019
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You can now ask Excel questions about your data

Microsoft today announced an update to Excel that brings natural language queries to the venerable spreadsheet tool. Available now to Office Insiders, this new feature allows you to talk to Excel like you’re talking to a person, and get quick answers to your queries without having to write a query.

“Natural language query is another step toward making data insights and visualization more approachable and accessible to users with various levels of Excel experience,” Microsoft explains. “Novice users will not need to know how to write a formula to gain useful insights from their data, while power users will be able to save time by automating the data discovery process by simply asking the right questions and quickly adding charts and tables they need for better and faster decisions.”

It’s worth noting that Google already offers similar features in Google Sheets. In my experience, Google sometimes does a pretty good job at finding data but also regularly fails to find even a single relevant data point, so it remains to be seen how good Excel is compared to that.

Today’s announcement is one in a series of recent launches for Excel that brought a number of new machine learning smarts to the spreadsheet. Among those is Excel’s ability to better understand your entries and provide you with additional information about stocks, geographical data and more.

Oct
16
2019
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Autify raises $2.5M seed round for its no-code software testing platform

Autify, a platform that makes testing web application as easy as clicking a few buttons, has raised a $2.5 million seed round from Global Brain, Salesforce Ventures, Archetype Ventures and several angels. The company, which recently graduated from the Alchemist accelerator program for enterprise startups, splits its base between the U.S., where it keeps an office, and Japan, where co-founders Ryo Chikazawa (CEO) and Sam Yamashita got their start as software engineers.

The main idea here is that Autify, which was founded in 2016, allows teams to write tests by simply recording their interactions with the app with the help of a Chrome extension, then having Autify run these tests automatically on a variety of other browsers and mobile devices. Typically, these kinds of tests are very brittle and quickly start to fail whenever a developer makes changes to the design of the application.

Autify gets around this by using some machine learning smarts that give it the ability to know that a given button or form is still the same, no matter where it is on the page. Users can currently test their applications using IE, Edge, Chrome and Firefox on macOS and Windows, as well as a range of iOS and Android devices.

Scenario Editor

Chikazawa tells me that the main idea of Autify is based on his own experience as a developer. He also noted that many enterprises are struggling to hire automation engineers who can write tests for them, using Selenium and similar frameworks. With Autify, any developer (and even non-developer) can create a test without having to know the specifics of the underlying testing framework. “You don’t really need technical knowledge,” explained Chikazawa. “You can just out of the box use Autify.”

There are obviously some other startups that are also tackling this space, including SpotQA, for example. Chikazawa, however, argues that Autify is different, given its focus on enterprises. “The audience is really different. We have competitors that are targeting engineers, but because we are saying that no coding [is required], we are selling to the companies that have been struggling with hiring automating engineers,” he told me. He also stressed that Autify is able to do cross-browser testing, something that’s also not a given among its competitors.

The company introduced its closed beta version in March and is currently testing the service with about a hundred companies. It integrates with development platforms like TestRail, Jenkins and CircleCI, as well as Slack.

Screen Shot 2019 10 01 at 2.04.24 AM

Sep
30
2019
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Microsoft’s Windows Virtual Desktop service is now generally available

Microsoft today announced that Windows Virtual Desktop (WVD), its Azure-based system for virtualizing the Windows and Office user experience it announced last September, is now generally available. Using WVD, enterprises can give their employees access to virtualized applications and remote desktops, including the ability to provide multi-session Windows 10 experiences, something that sets Microsoft’s own apart from that of other vendors that offer virtualized Windows desktops and applications.

In addition to making the service generally available, Microsoft is also rolling it out globally, whereas the preview was U.S.-only and the original plan was to slowly roll it out globally. Scott Manchester, the principal engineering lead for WVD, also told me that more than 20,000 companies signed up for the preview. He also noted that Microsoft Teams is getting enhanced support in WVD with a significantly improved video conferencing experience.

Shortly after announcing the preview of WVD, Microsoft acquired a company called FSLogix, which specialized in provisioning the same kind of virtualized Windows environments that Microsoft offers through WVD. As Microsoft’s corporate VP for Microsoft 365 told me ahead of today’s announcement, the company took a lot of the know-how from FSLogix to ensure that the user experience on WVD is as smooth as possible.

Brad Anderson, CVP of Microsoft 365, noted that just as enterprises are getting more comfortable with moving some of their infrastructure to the cloud (and have others worry about managing it), there is now also growing demand from organizations that want this same experience for their desktop experiences. “They look at the cloud as a way of saying, ‘listen, let the experts manage the infrastructure. They can optimize it; they can fine-tune it; they can make sure that it’s all done right.’ And then I’ll just have a first-party service — in this case Microsoft — that I can leverage to simplify my life and enable me to spin up and down capacity on demand,” Anderson said. He also noted, though, that making sure that these services are always available is maybe even more critical than for other workloads that have moved to the cloud. If your desktop stops working, you can’t get much done, after all.

Anderson also stressed that if a customer wants a multi-session Windows 10 environment in the cloud, WVD is the only way to go because that is the only way to get a license to do so. “We’ve built the operating system, we built the public cloud, so that combination is going to be unique and this gives us the ability to make sure that that Windows 10 experience is the absolute best on top of that public cloud,” he noted.

He also stressed that the FSLogix acquisition enabled his team to work with the Office team to optimize the user experience there. Thanks to this, when you spin up a new virtualized version of Outlook, for example, it’ll just take a second or two to load instead of almost a minute.

A number of companies are also still looking to upgrade their old Windows 7 deployments. Microsoft will stop providing free security patches for them very soon, but on WVD, these users will still be able to get access to virtualized Windows 7 desktops with free extended security updates until January 2023. Anderson does not believe that this will be a major driver for WVD adoption, but he does see “pockets of customers who are working on their transition.”

Enterprises can access Windows 10 Enterprise and Windows 7 Enterprise on WVD at no additional licensing cost (though, of course, the Azure resources they consume will cost them) if they have an eligible Windows 10 Enterprise or Microsoft 365 license.

 

Sep
29
2019
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Why is Dropbox reinventing itself?

According to Dropbox CEO Drew Houston, 80% of the product’s users rely on it, at least partially, for work.

It makes sense, then, that the company is refocusing to try and cement its spot in the workplace; to shed its image as “just” a file storage company (in a time when just about every big company has its own cloud storage offering) and evolve into something more immutably core to daily operations.

Earlier this week, Dropbox announced that the “new Dropbox” would be rolling out to all users. It takes the simple, shared folders that Dropbox is known for and turns them into what the company calls “Spaces” — little mini collaboration hubs for your team, complete with comment streams, AI for highlighting files you might need mid-meeting, and integrations into things like Slack, Trello and G Suite. With an overhauled interface that brings much of Dropbox’s functionality out of the OS and into its own dedicated app, it’s by far the biggest user-facing change the product has seen since launching 12 years ago.

Shortly after the announcement, I sat down with Dropbox VP of Product Adam Nash and CTO Quentin Clark . We chatted about why the company is changing things up, why they’re building this on top of the existing Dropbox product, and the things they know they just can’t change.

You can find these interviews below, edited for brevity and clarity.

Greg Kumparak: Can you explain the new focus a bit?

Adam Nash: Sure! I think you know this already, but I run products and growth, so I’m gonna have a bit of a product bias to this whole thing. But Dropbox… one of its differentiating characteristics is really that when we built this utility, this “magic folder”, it kind of went everywhere.

Sep
24
2019
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Windows 10 now runs on over 900M devices

So you thought there were 800 million Windows 10 Devices that will get Microsoft’s most recent out-of-band emergency patch? Think again. As the company announced on Twitter today, Windows 10 now runs on more than 900 million devices.

That’s a bit of bad timing, but current security issues aside, the momentum for Windows 10 clearly remains steady. Last September, Microsoft said Windows 10 was running on 700 million devices, and by March of this year, that number had gone up to 800 million. That number includes standard Windows 10 desktops and laptops, as well as the Xbox and niche devices like the Surface Hub and Microsoft’s HoloLens.

As Yusuf Mehdi, Microsoft’s corporate vice president of its Modern Life, Search and Devices group, also noted, the company added more Windows 10 devices in the last 12 months than ever before.

Come January 2020, Windows 7 is hitting the end of its (supported) life, which is likely pushing at least some users to move over to a more modern (and supported) operating system.

While those numbers for Windows 10 are clearly ticking up, Microsoft itself famously thought that Windows 10 would get to 1 billion devices by the middle of 2018. At this rate, Windows 10 will likely hit 1 billion sometime in 2020.

Aug
19
2019
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Ally raises $8M Series A for its OKR solution

OKRs, or Objectives and Key Results, are a popular planning method in Silicon Valley. Like most of those methods that make you fill in some form once every quarter, I’m pretty sure employees find them rather annoying and a waste of their time. Ally wants to change that and make the process more useful. The company today announced that it has raised an $8 million Series A round led by Accel Partners, with participation from Vulcan Capital, Founders Co-op and Lee Fixel. The company, which launched in 2018, previously raised a $3 million seed round.

Ally founder and CEO Vetri Vellore tells me that he learned his management lessons and the value of OKR at his last startup, Chronus. After years of managing large teams at enterprises like Microsoft, he found himself challenged to manage a small team at a startup. “I went and looked for new models of running a business execution. And OKRs were one of those things I stumbled upon. And it worked phenomenally well for us,” Vellore said. That’s where the idea of Ally was born, which Vellore pursued after selling his last startup.

Most companies that adopt this methodology, though, tend to work with spreadsheets and Google Docs. Over time, that simply doesn’t work, especially as companies get larger. Ally, then, is meant to replace these other tools. The service is currently in use at “hundreds” of companies in more than 70 countries, Vellore tells me.

One of its early adopters was Remitly . “We began by using shared documents to align around OKRs at Remitly. When it came time to roll out OKRs to everyone in the company, Ally was by far the best tool we evaluated. OKRs deployed using Ally have helped our teams align around the right goals and have ultimately driven growth,” said Josh Hug, COO of Remitly.

Desktop Team OKRs Screenshot

Vellore tells me that he has seen teams go from annual or bi-annual OKRs to more frequently updated goals, too, which is something that’s easier to do when you have a more accessible tool for it. Nobody wants to use yet another tool, though, so Ally features deep integrations into Slack, with other integrations in the works (something Ally will use this new funding for).

Since adopting OKRs isn’t always easy for companies that previously used other methodologies (or nothing at all), Ally also offers training and consulting services with online and on-site coaching.

Pricing for Ally starts at $7 per month per user for a basic plan, but the company also offers a flat $29 per month plan for teams with up to 10 users, as well as an enterprise plan, which includes some more advanced features and single sign-on integrations.

Jul
30
2019
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Monday.com raises $150M more, now at $1.9B valuation, for workplace collaboration tools

Workplace collaboration platforms have become a crucial cornerstone of the modern office: workers’ lives are guided by software and what we do on our computers, and collaboration tools provide a way for us to let each other know what we’re working on, and how we’re doing it, in a format that’s (at best) easy to use without too much distraction from the work itself.

Now, Monday.com, one of the faster growing of these platforms, is announcing a $150 million round of equity funding — a whopping raise that points both to its success so far and the opportunity ahead for the wider collaboration space, specifically around better team communication and team management.

The Series D funding — led by Sapphire Ventures, with Hamilton Lane, HarbourVest Partners, ION Crossover Partners and Vintage Investment Partners also participating — is coming in at what reliable sources tell me is a valuation of $1.9 billion, or nearly four times Monday.com’s valuation when it last raised money a year ago.

The big bump is in part due to the company’s rapid expansion: it now has 80,000 organizations as customers, up from a mere 35,000 a year ago, with the number of actual employees within those organizations numbering as high as 4,000 employees, or as little as two, spanning some 200 industry verticals, including a fair number of companies that are non-technical in their nature (but that still rely on using software and computers to get their work done). The client list includes Carlsberg, Discovery Channel, Philips, Hulu and WeWork and a number of Fortune 500 companies.

“We have built flexibility into the platform,” said Roy Mann, the CEO who co-founded the company with Eran Zinman, which is one reason he believes why it’s found a lot of stickiness among the wider field of knowledge workers looking for products that work not unlike the apps that they use as average consumers.

All those figures are also helping to put Monday.com on track for an IPO in the near future, said Mann.

“An IPO is something that we are considering for the future,” he said in an interview. “We are just at 1% of our potential, and we’re in a position for huge growth.” In terms of when that might happen, he and Zinman would not specify a timeline, but Mann added that this potentially could be the last round before a public listing.

On the other hand, there are some big plans up ahead for the startup, including adding a free usage tier (to date, the only thing free on Monday.com is a free trial; all usage tiers have been otherwise paid), expanding geographically and into more languages, and continuing to develop the integration and automation technology that underpins the product. The aim is to have 200 applications working with Monday.com by the end of this year.

While the company is already generating cash and it has just raised a significant round, in the current market, that has definitely not kept venture-backed startups from raising more. (Monday.com, which first started life as Dapulse in 2014, has raised $234.1 million to date.)

Monday.com’s rise and growth are coming at an interesting moment for productivity software. There have been software platforms on the market for years aimed at helping workers communicate with each other, as well as to better track how projects and other activity are progressing. Despite being a relatively late entrant, Slack, the now-public workplace chat platform, has arguably defined the space. (It has even entered the modern work lexicon, where people now Slack each other, as a verb.)

That speaks to the opportunity to build products even when it looks like the market is established, but also — potentially — competition. Mann and Zinman are clear to point out that they definitely do not see Slack as a rival, though. “We even use Slack ourselves in the office,” Zinman noted.

The closer rivals, they note, are the likes of Airtable (now valued at $1.1 billion) and Notion (which we’ve confirmed with the company was raising and has now officially closed a round of $10 million on an equally outsized valuation of $800 million), as well as the wider field of project management tools like Jira, Wrike and Asana — although as Mann playfully pointed out, all of those could also feasibly be integrated into Monday.com and they would work better…

The market is still so nascent for collaboration tools that even with this crowded field, Mann said he believes there is room for everyone and the differentiations that each platform currently offers: Notion, he noted as an example, feels geared toward more personal workspace management, while Airtable is more about taking on spreadsheets.

Within that, Monday.com hopes to position itself as the ever-powerful and smart go-to place to get an overview of everything that’s happening, with low chat noise and no need for technical knowledge to gain understanding.

“Monday.com is revolutionizing the workplace software market and we’re delighted to be partnering with Roy, Eran, and the rest of the team in their mission to transform the way people work,” said Rajeev Dham, managing partner at Sapphire Ventures, in a statement. “Monday.com delivers the quality and ease of use typically reserved for consumer products to the enterprise, which we think unlocks significant value for workers and organizations alike.”

May
16
2019
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OpenFin raises $17 million for its OS for finance

OpenFin, the company looking to provide the operating system for the financial services industry, has raised $17 million in funding through a Series C round led by Wells Fargo, with participation from Barclays and existing investors including Bain Capital Ventures, J.P. Morgan and Pivot Investment Partners. Previous investors in OpenFin also include DRW Venture Capital, Euclid Opportunities and NYCA Partners.

Likening itself to “the OS of finance,” OpenFin seeks to be the operating layer on which applications used by financial services companies are built and launched, akin to iOS or Android for your smartphone.

OpenFin’s operating system provides three key solutions which, while present on your mobile phone, has previously been absent in the financial services industry: easier deployment of apps to end users, fast security assurances for applications and interoperability.

Traders, analysts and other financial service employees often find themselves using several separate platforms simultaneously, as they try to source information and quickly execute multiple transactions. Yet historically, the desktop applications used by financial services firms — like trading platforms, data solutions or risk analytics — haven’t communicated with one another, with functions performed in one application not recognized or reflected in external applications.

“On my phone, I can be in my calendar app and tap an address, which opens up Google Maps. From Google Maps, maybe I book an Uber . From Uber, I’ll share my real-time location on messages with my friends. That’s four different apps working together on my phone,” OpenFin CEO and co-founder Mazy Dar explained to TechCrunch. That cross-functionality has long been missing in financial services.

As a result, employees can find themselves losing precious time — which in the world of financial services can often mean losing money — as they juggle multiple screens and perform repetitive processes across different applications.

Additionally, major banks, institutional investors and other financial firms have traditionally deployed natively installed applications in lengthy processes that can often take months, going through long vendor packaging and security reviews that ultimately don’t prevent the software from actually accessing the local system.

OpenFin CEO and co-founder Mazy Dar (Image via OpenFin)

As former analysts and traders at major financial institutions, Dar and his co-founder Chuck Doerr (now president & COO of OpenFin) recognized these major pain points and decided to build a common platform that would enable cross-functionality and instant deployment. And since apps on OpenFin are unable to access local file systems, banks can better ensure security and avoid prolonged yet ineffective security review processes.

And the value proposition offered by OpenFin seems to be quite compelling. OpenFin boasts an impressive roster of customers using its platform, including more than 1,500 major financial firms, almost 40 leading vendors and 15 of the world’s 20 largest banks.

More than 1,000 applications have been built on the OS, with OpenFin now deployed on more than 200,000 desktops — a noteworthy milestone given that the ever-popular Bloomberg Terminal, which is ubiquitously used across financial institutions and investment firms, is deployed on roughly 300,000 desktops.

Since raising their Series B in February 2017, OpenFin’s deployments have more than doubled. The company’s headcount has also doubled and its European presence has tripled. Earlier this year, OpenFin also launched it’s OpenFin Cloud Services platform, which allows financial firms to launch their own private local app stores for employees and customers without writing a single line of code.

To date, OpenFin has raised a total of $40 million in venture funding and plans to use the capital from its latest round for additional hiring and to expand its footprint onto more desktops around the world. In the long run, OpenFin hopes to become the vital operating infrastructure upon which all developers of financial applications are innovating.

Apple and Google’s mobile operating systems and app stores have enabled more than a million apps that have fundamentally changed how we live,” said Dar. “OpenFin OS and our new app store services enable the next generation of desktop apps that are transforming how we work in financial services.”

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