Sep
22
2020
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Microsoft challenges Twilio with the launch of Azure Communication Services

Microsoft today announced the launch of Azure Communication Services, a new set of features in its cloud that enable developers to add voice and video calling, chat and text messages to their apps, as well as old-school telephony.

The company describes the new set of services as the “first fully managed communication platform offering from a major cloud provider,” and that seems right, given that Google and AWS offer some of these features, including the AWS notification service, for example, but not as part of a cohesive communication service. Indeed, it seems Azure Communication Service is more of a competitor to the core features of Twilio or up-and-coming MessageBird.

Over the course of the last few years, Microsoft has built up a lot of experience in this area, in large parts thanks to the success of its Teams service. Unsurprisingly, that’s something Microsoft is also playing up in its announcement.

“Azure Communication Services is built natively on top a global, reliable cloud — Azure. Businesses can confidently build and deploy on the same low latency global communication network used by Microsoft Teams to support over 5 billion meeting minutes in a single day,” writes Scott Van Vliet, corporate vice president for Intelligent Communication at the company.

Microsoft also stresses that it offers a set of additional smart services that developers can tap into to build out their communication services, including its translation tools, for example. The company also notes that its services are encrypted to meet HIPPA and GDPR standards.

Like similar services, developers access the various capabilities through a set of new APIs and SDKs.

As for the core services, the capabilities here are pretty much what you’d expect. There’s voice and video calling (and the ability to shift between them). There’s support for chat and, starting in October, users will also be able to send text messages. Microsoft says developers will be able to send these to users anywhere, with Microsoft positioning it as a global service.

Provisioning phone numbers, too, is part of the services and developers will be able to provision those for in-bound and out-bound calls, port existing numbers, request new ones and — most importantly for contact-center users — integrate them with existing on-premises equipment and carrier networks.

“Our goal is to meet businesses where they are and provide solutions to help them be resilient and move their business forward in today’s market,” writes Van Vliet. “We see rich communication experiences – enabled by voice, video, chat, and SMS – continuing to be an integral part in how businesses connect with their customers across devices and platforms.”

Sep
22
2020
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Microsoft launches new Cortana features for business users

Cortana may have failed as a virtual assistant for consumers, but Microsoft is still betting on it (or at least its brand) for business use cases, now that it has rebranded it as a “personal productivity assistant” as part of Microsoft 365. Today, at its Ignite conference, Microsoft launched and announced a number of new Cortana services for business users.

These include the general availability of Cortana for the new Microsoft Teams displays the company is launching in partnership with a number of hardware vendors. You can think of these as dedicated smart displays for Teams that are somewhat akin to Google Assistant-enabled smart displays, for example — but with the sole focus on meetings. These days, it’s hard to enable a device like this without support for a voice assistant, so there you go. It’ll be available in September in English in the U.S. and will then roll out to Australia, Canada, the U.K. and India in the coming months.

In addition to these Teams devices, which Microsoft is not necessarily positioning for meeting rooms but as sidekicks to a regular laptop or desktop, Cortana will also soon come to Teams Rooms devices. Once we go back to offices and meeting rooms, after all, few people will want to touch a shared piece of hardware, so a touchless experience is a must.

For a while now, Microsoft has also been teasing more email-centric Cortana services. Play My Emails, a service that reads you your email out aloud and that’s already available in the U.S. on iOS and Android, is coming to Australia, Canada, the U.K. and India in the coming months. But more importantly, later this month, Outlook for iOS users will be able to interact with their inbox by voice, initiate calls to email senders and play emails from specific senders.

Cortana can now also send you daily briefing emails if you are a Microsoft 365 Enterprise user. This feature is now generally available and will get better meeting preparation, integration with Microsoft To Do and other new features in the coming months.

And if you’re using Cortana on Windows 10, this chat-based app now lets you compose emails, for example (at least if you speak English and are in the U.S.). And if you so desire, you can now use a wake word to launch it.

Sep
08
2020
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Google Cloud launches its Business Application Platform based on Apigee and AppSheet

Unlike some of its competitors, Google Cloud has recently started emphasizing how its large lineup of different services can be combined to solve common business problems. Instead of trying to sell individual services, Google is focusing on solutions and the latest effort here is what it calls its Business Application Platform, which combines the API management capabilities of Apigee with the no-code application development platform of AppSheet, which Google acquired earlier this year.

As part of this process, Google is also launching a number of new features for both services today. The company is launching the beta of a new API Gateway, built on top of the open-source Envoy project, for example. This is a fully managed service that is meant to make it easier for developers to secure and manage their API across Google’s cloud computing services and serverless offerings like Cloud Functions and Cloud Run. The new gateway, which has been in alpha for a while now, offers all the standard features you’d expect, including authentication, key validation and rate limiting.

As for its low-code service AppSheet, the Google Cloud team is now making it easier to bring in data from third-party applications thanks to the general availability to Apigee as a data source for the service. AppSheet already supported standard sources like MySQL, Salesforce and G Suite, but this new feature adds a lot of flexibility to the service.

With more data comes more complexity, so AppSheet is also launching new tools for automating processes inside the service today, thanks to the early access launch of AppSheet Automation. Like the rest of AppSheet, the promise here is that developers won’t have to write any code. Instead, AppSheet Automation provides a visual interface, that, according to Google, “provides contextual suggestions based on natural language inputs.” 

“We are confident the new category of business application platforms will help empower both technical and line of business developers with the core ability to create and extend applications, build and automate workflows, and connect and modernize applications,” Google notes in today’s announcement. And indeed, this looks like a smart way to combine the no-code environment of AppSheet with the power of Apigee .

Sep
01
2020
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Google Cloud lets businesses create their own text-to-speech voices

Google launched a few updates to its Contact Center AI product today, but the most interesting one is probably the beta of its new Custom Voice service, which will let brands create their own text-to-speech voices to best represent their own brands.

Maybe your company has a well-known spokesperson for example, but it would be pretty arduous to have them record every sentence in an automated response system or bring them back to the studio whenever you launch a new product or procedure. With Custom Voice, businesses can bring in their voice talent to the studio and have them record a script provided by Google. The company will then take those recordings and train its speech models based on them.

As of now, this seems to be a somewhat manual task on Google’s side. Training and evaluating the model will take “several weeks,” the company says and Google itself will conduct its own tests of the trained model before sending it back to the business that commissioned the model. After that, the business must follow Google’s own testing process to evaluate the results and sign off on it.

For now, these custom voices are still in beta and only American English is supported so far.

It’s also worth noting that Google’s review process is meant to ensure that the result is aligned with its internal AI Principles, which it released back in 2018.

Like with similar projects, I would expect that this lengthy process of creating custom voices for these contact center solutions will become mainstream quickly. While it will just be a gimmick for some brands (remember those custom voices for stand-alone GPS systems back in the day?), it will allow the more forward-thinking brands to distinguish their own contact center experiences from those of the competition. Nobody likes calling customer support, but a more thoughtful experience that doesn’t make you think you’re talking to a random phone tree may just help alleviate some of the stress at least.

Aug
25
2020
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Google Cloud Anthos update brings support for on-prem, bare metal

When Google announced Anthos last year at Google Cloud Next, it was a pretty big deal. Here was a cloud company releasing a product that purported to help you move your applications between cloud companies like AWS and Azure — GCP’s competitors — because it’s what customers demanded.

Google tapped into genuine anxiety that tech leaders at customer companies are having over vendor lock-in in the cloud. Back in the client-server days, most of these folks got locked into a tech stack where they were at the mercy of the vendor. It’s something companies desperately want to avoid this go-round.

With Anthos, Google claimed you could take an application, package it in a container and then move it freely between clouds without having to rewrite it for the underlying infrastructure. It was and remains a compelling idea.

This year, the company is updating the product to include a couple of specialty workloads that didn’t get into version 1.0 last year. For starters, many customers aren’t just multi-cloud, meaning they have workloads on various infrastructure cloud vendors, they are also hybrid. That means they still have workloads on-prem in their own data centers, as well as in the cloud, and Google wanted to provide a way to include these workloads in Anthos.

Pali Bhat, VP of product and design at Google Cloud, says they have heard customers still have plenty of applications on premises and they want a way to package them as containerized, cloud-native workloads.

“They do want to be able to bring all of the benefits of cloud to both their own data centers, but also to any cloud they choose to use. And what Anthos enables them to do is go on this journey of modernization and digital transformation and be able to take advantage of it by writing once and running it anywhere, and that’s a really cool vision,” Bhat said.

And while some companies have made the move from on prem to the cloud, they still want the comfort of working on bare metal where they are the only tenant. The cloud typically offers a multi-tenant environment where users share space on servers, but bare metal gives a customer the benefits of being in the cloud with the ability to control their own destiny as they do on prem.

Customers were asking for Anthos to support bare metal, and so Google gave the people what they wanted and are releasing a beta of Anthos for bare metal this week, which Bhat says provides the answer for companies looking to have the benefits of Anthos at the edge.

“[The bare metal support] lets customers run Anthos […] at edge locations without using any hypervisor. So this is a huge benefit for customers who are looking to minimize unnecessary overhead and unlock new use cases, especially both in the cloud and on the edge,” Bhat said.

Anthos is part of a broader cloud modernization platform that Google Cloud is offering customers that includes GKE (the Kubernetes engine), Cloud Functions (the serverless offering) and Cloud Run (container run time platform). Bhat says this set of products taps into a couple of trends they are seeing with customers. First of all, as we move deeper into the pandemic, companies are looking for ways to cut costs while making a faster push to the cloud. The second is taking advantage of that push by becoming more agile and innovative.

It seems to be working. Bhat reports that in Q2, the company has seen a lot of interest. “One of the things in Q2 of 2020 that we’ve seen is that just Q2, over 100,000 companies used our application modernization platform and services,” he said.

Aug
24
2020
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Meet the anti-antitrust startup club

When Congress called in tech CEOs to testify a few weeks ago, it felt like a defining moment. Hundreds of startups have become unicorns, with the largest worth more than $1 trillion (or perhaps $2 trillion). Indeed, modern tech companies have become so entrenched, Facebook is the only one of the Big Five American tech shops worth less than 13 figures.

The titanic valuations of many companies are predicated on current performance, cash on hand and lofty expectations for future growth. The pandemic has done little to stem Big Tech’s forward march and many startups have seen growth rates accelerate as other sectors rushed to support a suddenly remote workforce.

But inside tech’s current moment in the sun is a concern that Congress worked to highlight: Are these firms behaving anti-competitively?

By now you’ve heard the arguments concerning why Big Tech may be too big, but there’s a neat second story that we, the Equity crew, have been chatting about: Some startups are racing into the big kill zone.

They have to be a bit foolhardy to take on Google Gmail and Search, Amazon’s e-commerce platform or Apple’s App Store. Yet, there are startups targeting all of these categories and more, some flush with VC funding from investors who are eager to take a swing at tech’s biggest players

If the little companies manage to carve material market share for themselves, arguments that Big Tech was just too big to kill — let alone fail — will dissolve. But today, their incumbency is a reality and these startups are merely bold.

Still, when we look at the work being done, there are enough companies staring down the most valuable companies in American history (on an unadjusted basis) that we had to shout them out. Say hello to the “anti-antitrust club.”

Hey and Superhuman are coming after Gmail

Gmail has been the undisputed leader in consumer email for years (if not enterprise email, where Microsoft has massive inroads due to Exchange and Outlook). Startups have contested that market, including Mailbox, which sold to Dropbox for about $100 million back in 2013, but whenever a new feature came along that might entice users, Gmail managed to suck it up into its app.

Aug
05
2020
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Amazon inks cloud deal with Airtel in India

Amazon has found a new partner to expand the reach of its cloud services business — AWS — in India, the world’s second largest internet market.

On Wednesday, the e-commerce giant announced it has partnered with Bharti Airtel, the third-largest telecom operator in India with more than 300 million subscribers, to sell a wide-range of AWS offerings under Airtel Cloud brand to small, medium, and large-sized businesses in the country.

The deal could help AWS, which leads the cloud market in India, further expand its dominance in the country. The move follows a similar deal Reliance Jio — India’s largest telecom operator and which has raised more than $20 billion in recent months from Google, Facebook and a roster of other high-profile investors — struck with Microsoft last year to sell cloud services to small businesses. The two announced a 10-year partnership to “serve millions of customers.”

Airtel, which serves over 2,500 large enterprises and more than a million emerging businesses, itself signed a similar cloud deal with Google in January this year. That partnership is still in place, Airtel said.

“AWS brings over 175 services to the table. We pretty much support any workload on the cloud. We have the largest and the most vibrant community of customers,” said Puneet Chandok, President of AWS in India and South Asia, on a call with reporters Wednesday noon.

The two companies, which signed a similar agreement in 2015, will also collaborate on building new services and help existing customers migrate to Airtel Cloud, they said.

Today’s deal illustrates Airtel’s push to build businesses beyond its telecom venture, said Harmeen Mehta, Global CIO and Head of Cloud and Security Business at Airtel, on the call. Last month, Airtel partnered with Verizon — TechCrunch’s parent company — to sell BlueJeans video conferencing service to business customers in India.

Deals with carriers were very common a decade ago in India as tech giants rushed to amass users in the country. Replicating a similar strategy now illustrates the phase of the cloud adoption in the nation.

Nearly half a billion people in India came online last decade. And slowly, small businesses and merchants are also beginning to use digital tools, storage services, and accept online payments.

India has emerged as one of the emerging leading grounds for cloud services. The public cloud services market of the country is estimated to reach $7.1 billion by 2024, according to research firm IDC.

Jul
31
2020
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Even as cloud infrastructure growth slows, revenue rises over $30B for quarter

The cloud market is coming into its own during the pandemic as the novel coronavirus forced many companies to accelerate plans to move to the cloud, even while the market was beginning to mature on its own.

This week, the big three cloud infrastructure vendors — Amazon, Microsoft and Google — all reported their earnings, and while the numbers showed that growth was beginning to slow down, revenue continued to increase at an impressive rate, surpassing $30 billion for a quarter for the first time, according to Synergy Research Group numbers.

Jul
15
2020
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Gmail for G Suite gets deep integrations with Chat, Meet, Rooms and more

Google is launching a major update to its G Suite productivity tools today that will see a deep integration of Gmail, Chat, Meet and Rooms on the web and on mobile, as well as other tools like Calendar, Docs, Sheets and Slides. This integration will become available in the G Suite early adopter program, with a wider roll-out coming at a later time.

The G Suite team has been working on this project for about a year, though it fast-tracked the Gmail/Meet integration, which was originally scheduled to be part of today’s release, as part of its response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the core of today’s update is the idea that we’re all constantly switching between different modes of communication, be that email, chat, voice or video. So with this update, the company is bringing all of this together, with Gmail being the focal point for the time being, given that this is where most users already find themselves for hours on end anyway.

Google is branding this initiative as a “better home for work” and in practice, it means that you’ll not just see deeper integrations between products, like a fill calendaring and file management experience in Gmail, but also the ability to have a video chat open on one side of the window while collaboratively editing a document in real time on the other.

Image Credits: Google

According to G Suite VP and GM Javier Soltero, the overall idea here is not just to bring all of these tools closer together to reduce the task-switching that users have to do.

Image Credits: Google

“We’re announcing something we’ve been working on since a little bit before I even joined Google last year: a new integrated workspace designed to bring together all the core components of communication and collaboration into a single surface that is not just about bringing these ingredients into the same pane of glass, but also realizes something that’s greater than the sum of its parts,” he told me ahead of today’s announcement. “The degree of integration across the different modes of communication, specifically email, chat, and video calling and voice video calling along with our existing physical existing strength in collaboration.”

Just like on the web, Google also revealed some of its plans when it first announced its latest major update to Gmail for mobile in May, with its Meet integration in the form of a new bar at the bottom of the screen for moving between Mail and Meet. With this, it’s expanding to include native Chat and Rooms support as well. Soltero noted that Google thinks of these four products as the “four pillars of the integrated workspace.” Having them all integrated into a single app means you can manage the notification behavior of all of them in a single place, for example, and without the often cumbersome task-switching experience on mobile.

Image Credits: Google

For now, these updates are specific to G Suite, though similar to Google’s work around bringing Meet to consumers, the company plans to bring this workspace experience to consumers as well, but what exactly that will look like still remains to be seen. “Right now we’re really focused. The people who urgently need this are those involved in productivity scenarios. This idea of ‘the new home for work’ is much more about collaboration that is specific to professional settings, productivity and workplace settings,” Soltero said.

Image Credits: Google

But there is more…

Google is also announcing a few other feature updates to its G Suite line today. Chat rooms, for example, are now getting shared files and tasks, with the ability to assign tasks and to invite users from outside your company into rooms. These rooms now also let you have chats open on one side and edit a document on the other, all without switching to a completely different web app.

Also new is the ability in Gmail to search not just for emails but also chats, as well as new tools to pin important rooms and new “do not disturb” and “out of office” settings.

One nifty new feature of these new integrated workspaces is that Google is also working with some of its partners to bring their apps into the experience. The company specifically mentions DocuSign, Salesforce and Trello. These companies already offer some deep Gmail integrations, including integrations with the Gmail sidebar, so we’ll likely see this list expand over time.

Meet itself, too, is getting some updates in the coming weeks with “knocking controls” to make sure that once you throw somebody out of a meeting, that person can’t come back, and safety locks that help meeting hosts decide who can chat or present in a meeting.

Image Credits: Google

Jul
14
2020
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Google Cloud launches Confidential VMs

At its virtual Cloud Next ’20 event, Google Cloud today announced Confidential VMs, a new type of virtual machine that makes use of the company’s work around confidential computing to ensure that data isn’t just encrypted at rest but also while it is in memory.

We already employ a variety of isolation and sandboxing techniques as part of our cloud infrastructure to help make our multi-tenant architecture secure,” the company notes in today’s announcement. “Confidential VMs take this to the next level by offering memory encryption so that you can further isolate your workloads in the cloud. Confidential VMs can help all our customers protect sensitive data, but we think it will be especially interesting to those in regulated industries.”

In the backend, Confidential VMs make use of AMD’s Secure Encrypted Virtualization feature, available in its second-generation EPYC CPUs. With that, the data will stay encrypted when used and the encryption keys to make this happen are automatically generated in hardware and can’t be exported — and with that, even Google doesn’t have access to the keys either.

Image Credits: Google

Developers who want to shift their existing VMs to a Confidential VM can do so with just a few clicks. Google notes that it built Confidential VMs on top of its Shielded VMs, which already provide protection against rootkits and other exploits.

“With built-in secure encrypted virtualization, 2nd Gen AMD EPYC processors provide an innovative hardware-based security feature that helps secure data in a virtualized environment,” said Raghu Nambiar, corporate vice president, Data Center Ecosystem, AMD. “For the new Google Compute Engine Confidential VMs in the N2D series, we worked with Google to help customers both secure their data and achieve performance of their workloads.”

That last part is obviously important, given that the extra encryption and decryption steps do incur at least a minor performance penalty. Google says it worked with AMD and developed new open-source drivers to ensure that “the performance metrics of Confidential VMs are close to those of non-confidential VMs.” At least according to the benchmarks Google itself has disclosed so far, both startup times and memory read and throughput performance are virtually the same for regular VMs and Confidential VMs.

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