Apr
30
2020
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Microsoft makes it easier to get started with Windows Virtual Desktops

Microsoft today announced a slew of updates to various parts of its Microsoft 365 ecosystem. A lot of these aren’t all that exciting (though that obviously depends on your level of enthusiasm for products like Microsoft Endpoint Manager), but the overall thrust behind this update is to make life easier for the IT admins that help provision and manage corporate Windows — and Mac — machines, something that’s even more important right now, given how many companies are trying to quickly adapt to this new work-from-home environment.

For them, the highlight of today’s set of announcements is surely an update to Windows Virtual Desktop, Microsoft’s service for giving employees access to a virtualized desktop environment on Azure and that allows IT departments to host multiple Windows 10 sessions on the same hardware. The company is launching a completely new management experience for this service that makes getting started significantly easier for admins.

Ahead of today’s announcement, Brad Anderson, Microsoft’s corporate VP for Microsoft 365, told me that it took a considerable amount of Azure expertise to get started with this service. With this update, you still need to know a bit about Azure, but the overall process of getting started is now significantly easier. And that, Anderson noted, is now more important than ever.

“Some organizations are telling me that they’re using on-prem [Virtual Desktop Infrastructure]. They had to go do work to basically free up capacity. In some cases, that means doing away with disaster recovery for some of their services in order to get the capacity,” Anderson said. “In some cases, I hear leaders say it’s going to take until the middle or the end of May to get the additional capacity to spin up the VDI sessions that are needed. In today’s world, that’s just unacceptable. Given what the cloud can do, people need to have the ability to spin up and spin down on demand. And that’s the unique thing that a Windows Virtual Desktop does relative to traditional VDI.”

Anderson also believes that remote work will remain much more common once things go back to normal — whenever that happens and whatever that will look like. “I think the usage of virtualization where you are virtualizing running an app in a data center in the cloud and then virtualizing it down will grow. This will introduce a secular trend and growth of cloud-based VDI,” he said.

In addition to making the management experience easier, Microsoft is now also making it possible to use Microsoft Teams for video meetings in these virtual desktop environments, using a feature called ‘A/V redirection’ that allows users to connect their local audio and video hardware and virtual machines with low latency. It’ll take another month or so for this feature to roll out, though.

Also new is the ability to keep service metadata about Windows Virtual Desktop usage within a certain Azure region for compliance and regulatory reasons.

For those of you interested in Microsoft Endpoint Manager, the big news here is better support for macOS-based machines. Using the new Intune MDM agent for macOS, admins can use the same tool for managing repetitive tasks on Windows 10 and macOS.

Productivity Score — a product only an enterprise manager would love — is also getting an update. You can now see how people in an organization are reading, authoring and collaborating around content in OneDrive and SharePoint, for example. And if they aren’t, you can write a memo and tell them they should collaborate more.

There are also new dashboards here for looking at how employees work across devices and how they communicate. It’s worth noting that this is aggregate data and not another way for corporate to look at what individual employees are doing.

The one feature here that does actually seem really useful, especially given the current situation, is a new Network Connectivity category that helps IT to figure out where there are networking challenges.

Feb
28
2020
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Microsoft’s Cortana drops consumer skills as it refocuses on business users

With the next version of Windows 10, coming this spring, Microsoft’s Cortana digital assistant will lose a number of consumer skills around music and connected homes, as well as some third-party skills. That’s very much in line with Microsoft’s new focus for Cortana, but it may still come as a surprise to the dozens of loyal Cortana fans.

Microsoft is also turning off Cortana support in its Microsoft Launcher on Android by the end of April and on older versions of Windows that have reached their end-of-service date, which usually comes about 36 months after the original release.

cortana

As the company explained last year, it now mostly thinks of Cortana as a service for business users. The new Cortana is all about productivity, with deep integrations into Microsoft’s suite of Office tools, for example. In this context, consumer services are only a distraction, and Microsoft is leaving that market to the likes of Amazon and Google .

Because the new Cortana experience is all about Microsoft 365, the subscription service that includes access to the Office tools, email, online storage and more, it doesn’t come as a surprise that the assistant’s new feature will give you access to data from these tools, including your calendar, Microsoft To Do notes and more.

And while some consumer features are going away, Microsoft stresses that Cortana will still be able to tell you a joke, set alarms and timers, and give you answers from Bing.

For now, all of this only applies to English-speaking users in the U.S. Outside of the U.S., most of the productivity features will launch in the future.

Feb
28
2020
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Microsoft’s Cortana drops consumer skills as it refocuses on business users

With the next version of Windows 10, coming this spring, Microsoft’s Cortana digital assistant will lose a number of consumer skills around music and connected homes, as well as some third-party skills. That’s very much in line with Microsoft’s new focus for Cortana, but it may still come as a surprise to the dozens of loyal Cortana fans.

Microsoft is also turning off Cortana support in its Microsoft Launcher on Android by the end of April and on older versions of Windows that have reached their end-of-service date, which usually comes about 36 months after the original release.

cortana

As the company explained last year, it now mostly thinks of Cortana as a service for business users. The new Cortana is all about productivity, with deep integrations into Microsoft’s suite of Office tools, for example. In this context, consumer services are only a distraction, and Microsoft is leaving that market to the likes of Amazon and Google .

Because the new Cortana experience is all about Microsoft 365, the subscription service that includes access to the Office tools, email, online storage and more, it doesn’t come as a surprise that the assistant’s new feature will give you access to data from these tools, including your calendar, Microsoft To Do notes and more.

And while some consumer features are going away, Microsoft stresses that Cortana will still be able to tell you a joke, set alarms and timers, and give you answers from Bing.

For now, all of this only applies to English-speaking users in the U.S. Outside of the U.S., most of the productivity features will launch in the future.

Nov
04
2019
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The 7 most important announcements from Microsoft Ignite

It’s Microsoft Ignite this week, the company’s premier event for IT professionals and decision-makers. But it’s not just about new tools for role-based access. Ignite is also very much a forward-looking conference that keeps the changing role of IT in mind. And while there isn’t a lot of consumer news at the event, the company does tend to make a few announcements for developers, as well.

This year’s Ignite was especially news-heavy. Ahead of the event, the company provided journalists and analysts with an 87-page document that lists all of the news items. If I counted correctly, there were about 175 separate announcements. Here are the top seven you really need to know about.

Azure Arc: you can now use Azure to manage resources anywhere, including on AWS and Google Cloud

What was announced: Microsoft was among the first of the big cloud vendors to bet big on hybrid deployments. With Arc, the company is taking this a step further. It will let enterprises use Azure to manage their resources across clouds — including those of competitors like AWS and Google Cloud. It’ll work for Windows and Linux Servers, as well as Kubernetes clusters, and also allows users to take some limited Azure data services with them to these platforms.

Why it matters: With Azure Stack, Microsoft already allowed businesses to bring many of Azure’s capabilities into their own data centers. But because it’s basically a local version of Azure, it only worked on a limited set of hardware. Arc doesn’t bring all of the Azure Services, but it gives enterprises a single platform to manage all of their resources across the large clouds and their own data centers. Virtually every major enterprise uses multiple clouds. Managing those environments is hard. So if that’s the case, Microsoft is essentially saying, let’s give them a tool to do so — and keep them in the Azure ecosystem. In many ways, that’s similar to Google’s Anthos, yet with an obvious Microsoft flavor, less reliance on Kubernetes and without the managed services piece.

Microsoft launches Project Cortex, a knowledge network for your company

What was announced: Project Cortex creates a knowledge network for your company. It uses machine learning to analyze all of the documents and contracts in your various repositories — including those of third-party partners — and then surfaces them in Microsoft apps like Outlook, Teams and its Office apps when appropriate. It’s the company’s first new commercial service since the launch of Teams.

Why it matters: Enterprises these days generate tons of documents and data, but it’s often spread across numerous repositories and is hard to find. With this new knowledge network, the company aims to surface this information proactively, but it also looks at who the people are who work on them and tries to help you find the subject matter experts when you’re working on a document about a given subject, for example.

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Microsoft launched Endpoint Manager to modernize device management

What was announced: Microsoft is combining its ConfigMgr and Intune services that allow enterprises to manage the PCs, laptops, phones and tablets they issue to their employees under the Endpoint Manager brand. With that, it’s also launching a number of tools and recommendations to help companies modernize their deployment strategies. ConfigMgr users will now also get a license to Intune to allow them to move to cloud-based management.

Why it matters: In this world of BYOD, where every employee uses multiple devices, as well as constant attacks against employee machines, effectively managing these devices has become challenging for most IT departments. They often use a mix of different tools (ConfigMgr for PCs, for example, and Intune for cloud-based management of phones). Now, they can get a single view of their deployments with the Endpoint Manager, which Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella described as one of the most important announcements of the event, and ConfigMgr users will get an easy path to move to cloud-based device management thanks to the Intune license they now have access to.

Microsoft’s Chromium-based Edge browser gets new privacy features, will be generally available January 15

What was announced: Microsoft’s Chromium-based version of Edge will be generally available on January 15. The release candidate is available now. That’s the culmination of a lot of work from the Edge team, and, with today’s release, the company is also adding a number of new privacy features to Edge that, in combination with Bing, offers some capabilities that some of Microsoft’s rivals can’t yet match, thanks to its newly enhanced InPrivate browsing mode.

Why it matters: Browsers are interesting again. After years of focusing on speed, the new focus is now privacy, and that’s giving Microsoft a chance to gain users back from Chrome (though maybe not Firefox). At Ignite, Microsoft also stressed that Edge’s business users will get to benefit from a deep integration with its updated Bing engine, which can now surface business documents, too.

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You can now try Microsoft’s web-based version of Visual Studio

What was announced: At Build earlier this year, Microsoft announced that it would soon launch a web-based version of its Visual Studio development environment, based on the work it did on the free Visual Studio Code editor. This experience, with deep integrations into the Microsoft-owned GitHub, is now live in a preview.

Why it matters: Microsoft has long said that it wants to meet developers where they are. While Visual Studio Online isn’t likely to replace the desktop-based IDE for most developers, it’s an easy way for them to make quick changes to code that lives in GitHub, for example, without having to set up their IDE locally. As long as they have a browser, developers will be able to get their work done..

Microsoft launches Power Virtual Agents, its no-code bot builder

What was announced: Power Virtual Agents is Microsoft’s new no-code/low-code tool for building chatbots. It leverages a lot of Azure’s machine learning smarts to let you create a chatbot with the help of a visual interface. In case you outgrow that and want to get to the actual code, you can always do so, too.

Why it matters: Chatbots aren’t exactly at the top of the hype cycle, but they do have lots of legitimate uses. Microsoft argues that a lot of early efforts were hampered by the fact that the developers were far removed from the user. With a visual too, though, anybody can come in and build a chatbot — and a lot of those builders will have a far better understanding of what their users are looking for than a developer who is far removed from that business group.

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

What was announced: Cortana lives — and it now also has a male voice. But more importantly, Microsoft launched a few new focused Cortana-based experiences that show how the company is focusing on its voice assistant as a tool for productivity. In Outlook on iOS (with Android coming later), Cortana can now read you a summary of what’s in your inbox — and you can have a chat with it to flag emails, delete them or dictate answers. Cortana can now also send you a daily summary of your calendar appointments, important emails that need answers and suggest focus time for you to get actual work done that’s not email.

Why it matters: In this world of competing assistants, Microsoft is very much betting on productivity. Cortana didn’t work out as a consumer product, but the company believes there is a large (and lucrative) niche for an assistant that helps you get work done. Because Microsoft doesn’t have a lot of consumer data, but does have lots of data about your work, that’s probably a smart move.

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SAN FRANCISCO, CA – APRIL 02: Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella walks in front of the new Cortana logo as he delivers a keynote address during the 2014 Microsoft Build developer conference on April 2, 2014 in San Francisco, California (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Bonus: Microsoft agrees with you and thinks meetings are broken — and often it’s the broken meeting room that makes meetings even harder. To battle this, the company today launched Managed Meeting Rooms, which for $50 per room/month lets you delegate to Microsoft the monitoring and management of the technical infrastructure of your meeting rooms.

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.

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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.

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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
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.

May
02
2019
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Microsoft announces the $3,500 HoloLens 2 Development Edition

As part of its rather odd Thursday afternoon pre-Build news dump, Microsoft today announced the HoloLens 2 Development Edition. The company announced the much-improved HoloLens 2 at MWC Barcelona earlier this year, but it’s not shipping to developers yet. Currently, the best release date we have is “later this year.” The Development Edition will launch alongside the regular HoloLens 2.

The Development Edition, which will retail for $3,500 to own outright or on a $99 per month installment plan, doesn’t feature any special hardware. Instead, it comes with $500 in Azure credits and 3-month trials of Unity Pro and the Unity PiXYZ plugin for bringing engineering renderings into Unity.

To get the Development Edition, potential buyers have to join the Microsoft Mixed Reality Developer Program and those who already pre-ordered the standard edition will be able to change their order later this year.

As far as HoloLens news goes, that’s all a bit underwhelming. Anybody can get free Azure credits, after all (though usually only $200) and free trials of Unity Pro are also readily available (though typically limited to 30 days).

Oddly, the regular HoloLens 2 was also supposed to cost $3,500. It’s unclear if the regular edition will now be somewhat cheaper, cost the same but come without the credits, or really why Microsoft isn’t doing this at all. Turning this into a special “Development Edition” feels more like a marketing gimmick than anything else, as well as an attempt to bring some of the futuristic glamour of the HoloLens visor to today’s announcements.

The folks at Unity are clearly excited, though. “Pairing HoloLens 2 with Unity’s real-time 3D development platform enables businesses to accelerate innovation, create immersive experiences, and engage with industrial customers in more interactive ways,” says Tim McDonough, GM of Industrial at Unity, in today’s announcement. “The addition of Unity Pro and PiXYZ Plugin to HoloLens 2 Development Edition gives businesses the immediate ability to create real-time 2D, 3D, VR, and AR interactive experiences while allowing for the importing and preparation of design data to create real-time experiences.”

Microsoft also today noted that Unreal Engine 4 support for HoloLens 2 will become available by the end of May.

Mar
20
2019
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Windows Virtual Desktop is now in public preview

Last year, Microsoft announced the launch of its Windows Virtual Desktop service. At the time, this was a private preview, but starting today, any enterprise user who wants to try out what using a virtual Windows 10 desktop that’s hosted in the Azure cloud looks like will be able to give it a try.

It’s worth noting that this is very much a product for businesses. You’re not going to use this to play Apex Legends on a virtual machine somewhere in the cloud. The idea here is that a service like this, which also includes access to Office 365 ProPlus, makes managing machines and the software that runs on them easier for enterprises. It also allows employers in regulated industries to provide their mobile workers with a virtual desktop that ensures that all of their precious data remains secure.

One stand-out feature here is that businesses can run multiple Windows 10 sessions on a single virtual machine.

It’s also worth noting that many of the features of this service are powered by technology from FSLogix, which Microsoft acquired last year. Specifically, these technologies allow Microsoft to give the non-persistent users relatively fast access to applications like their Outlook and OneDrive applications, for example.

For most Microsoft 365 enterprise customers, access to this service is simply part of the subscription cost they already pay — though they will need an Azure subscription and to pay for the virtual machines that run in the cloud.

Right now, the service is only available in the US East 2 and US Central Azure regions. Over time, and once the preview is over, Microsoft will expand it to all of its cloud regions.

Sep
24
2018
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Microsoft hopes enterprises will want to use Cortana

In a world dominated by Alexa and the Google Assistant, Cortana suffers the fate of a perfectly good alternative that nobody uses and everybody forgets about. But Microsoft wouldn’t be Microsoft if it just gave up on its investment in this space, so it’s now launching the Cortana Skills Kit for Enterprise to see if that’s a niche where Cortana can succeed.

This new kit is an end-to-end solution for enterprises that want to build their own skills and agents. Of course, they could have done this before using the existing developer tools. This kit isn’t all that different from those, after all. Microsoft notes that it is designed for deployment inside an organization and represents a new platform for them to build these experiences.

The Skills Kit platform is based on the Microsoft Bot Framework and the Azure Cognitive Services Language Understanding feature.

Overall, this is probably not a bad bet on Microsoft’s part. I can see how some enterprises would want to build their own skills for their employees and customers to access internal data, for example, or to complete routine tasks.

For now, this tool is only available in private preview. No word on when we can expect a wider launch.

more Microsoft Ignite 2018 coverage

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