Feb
21
2019
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Microsoft bringing Dynamics 365 mixed reality solutions to smartphones

Last year Microsoft introduced several mixed reality business solutions under the Dynamics 365 enterprise product umbrella. Today, the company announced it would be moving these to smartphones in the spring, starting with previews.

The company announced Remote Assist on HoloLens last year. This tool allows a technician working onsite to show a remote expert what they are seeing. The expert can then walk the less-experienced employee through the repair. This is great for those companies that have equipped their workforce with HoloLens for hands-free instruction, but not every company can afford the new equipment.

Starting in the spring, Microsoft is going to help with that by introducing Remote Assist for Android phones. Just about everyone has a phone with them, and those with Android devices will be able to take advantage of Remote Assist capabilities without investing in HoloLens. The company is also updating Remote Assist to include mobile annotations, group calling and deeper integration with Dynamics 365 for Field Service, along with improved accessibility features on the HoloLens app.

IPhone users shouldn’t feel left out though because the company announced a preview of Dynamics 365 Product Visualize for iPhone. This tool enables users to work with a customer to visualize what a customized product will look like as they work with them. Think about a furniture seller working with a customer in their homes to customize the color, fabrics and design in place in the room where they will place the furniture, or a car dealer offering different options such as color and wheel styles. Once a customer agrees to a configuration, the data gets saved to Dynamics 365 and shared in Microsoft Teams for greater collaboration across a group of employees working with a customer on a project.

Both of these features are part of the Dynamics 365 spring release and are going to be available in preview starting in April. They are part of a broader release that includes a variety of new artificial intelligence features such as customer service bots and a unified view of customer data across the Dynamics 365 family of products.

Feb
07
2019
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Someone could scoop up Slack before it IPOs

Earlier this week, Slack announced that it has filed the paperwork to go public at some point later this year. The big question is, will the company exit into the public markets as expected, or will one of the technology giants swoop in at the last minute with buckets of cash and take them off the market?

Slack, which raised more than $1 billion on an other-worldly $7 billion valuation, is an interesting property. It has managed to grow and be successful while competing with some of the world’s largest tech companies — Microsoft, Cisco, Facebook, Google and Salesforce. Not coincidentally, these deep-pocketed companies could be the ones that come knock, knock, knocking at Slack’s door.

Slack has managed to hold its own against these giants by doing something in this space that hadn’t been done effectively before. It made it easy to plug in other services, effectively making Slack a work hub where you could spend your day because your work could get pushed to you there from other enterprise apps.

As I’ve discussed before, this centralized hub has been a dream of communications tools for most of the 21st century. It began with enterprise IM tools in the early 2000s, and progressed to Enterprise 2.0 tools in the 2007 time frame. That period culminated in 2012 when Microsoft bought Yammer for $1.2 billion, the only billion-dollar exit for that generation of tools.

I remember hearing complaints about Enterprise 2.0 tools. While they had utility, in many ways they were just one more thing employees had to check for information beyond email. The talk was these tools would replace email, but a decade later email’s still standing and that generation of tools has been absorbed.

In 2013, Slack came along, perhaps sensing that Enterprise 2.0 never really got mobile and the cloud, and it recreated the notion in a more modern guise. By taking all of that a step further and making the tool a kind of workplace hub, it has been tremendously successful, growing to 8 million daily users in roughly 4 years, around 3 million of which were the paying variety, at last count.

Slack’s growth numbers as of May 2018

All of this leads us back to the exit question. While the company has obviously filed for IPO paperwork, it might not be the way it ultimately exits. Just the other day CNBC’s Jay Yarrow posited this questions on Twitter:

Not sure where he pulled that number from, but if you figure 3x valuation, that could be the value for a company of this ilk. There would be symmetry in Microsoft buying Slack six years after it plucked Yammer off the market, and it would remove a major competitive piece from the board, while allowing Microsoft access to Slack’s growing customer base.

Nobody can see into the future, and maybe Slack does IPO and takes its turn as a public company, but it surely wouldn’t be a surprise if someone came along with an offer it couldn’t refuse, whatever that figure might be.

Feb
07
2019
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Microsoft Azure sets its sights on more analytics workloads

Enterprises now amass huge amounts of data, both from their own tools and applications, as well as from the SaaS applications they use. For a long time, that data was basically exhaust. Maybe it was stored for a while to fulfill some legal requirements, but then it was discarded. Now, data is what drives machine learning models, and the more data you have, the better. It’s maybe no surprise, then, that the big cloud vendors started investing in data warehouses and lakes early on. But that’s just a first step. After that, you also need the analytics tools to make all of this data useful.

Today, it’s Microsoft turn to shine the spotlight on its data analytics services. The actual news here is pretty straightforward. Two of these are services that are moving into general availability: the second generation of Azure Data Lake Storage for big data analytics workloads and Azure Data Explorer, a managed service that makes easier ad-hoc analysis of massive data volumes. Microsoft is also previewing a new feature in Azure Data Factory, its graphical no-code service for building data transformation. Data Factory now features the ability to map data flows.

Those individual news pieces are interesting if you are a user or are considering Azure for your big data workloads, but what’s maybe more important here is that Microsoft is trying to offer a comprehensive set of tools for managing and storing this data — and then using it for building analytics and AI services.

(Photo credit:Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

“AI is a top priority for every company around the globe,” Julia White, Microsoft’s corporate VP for Azure, told me. “And as we are working with our customers on AI, it becomes clear that their analytics often aren’t good enough for building an AI platform.” These companies are generating plenty of data, which then has to be pulled into analytics systems. She stressed that she couldn’t remember a customer conversation in recent months that didn’t focus on AI. “There is urgency to get to the AI dream,” White said, but the growth and variety of data presents a major challenge for many enterprises. “They thought this was a technology that was separate from their core systems. Now it’s expected for both customer-facing and line-of-business applications.”

Data Lake Storage helps with managing this variety of data since it can handle both structured and unstructured data (and is optimized for the Spark and Hadoop analytics engines). The service can ingest any kind of data — yet Microsoft still promises that it will be very fast. “The world of analytics tended to be defined by having to decide upfront and then building rigid structures around it to get the performance you wanted,” explained White. Data Lake Storage, on the other hand, wants to offer the best of both worlds.

Likewise, White argued that while many enterprises used to keep these services on their on-premises servers, many of them are still appliance-based. But she believes the cloud has now reached the point where the price/performance calculations are in its favor. It took a while to get to this point, though, and to convince enterprises. White noted that for the longest time, enterprises that looked at their analytics projects thought $300 million projects took forever, tied up lots of people and were frankly a bit scary. “But also, what we had to offer in the cloud hasn’t been amazing until some of the recent work,” she said. “We’ve been on a journey — as well as the other cloud vendors — and the price performance is now compelling.” And it sure helps that if enterprises want to meet their AI goals, they’ll now have to tackle these workloads, too.

Feb
04
2019
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After 5 years, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has transformed more than the stock price

Five years ago today, Satya Nadella took over as CEO at Microsoft, and by most any measure has been wildly successful. It’s common to look at the stock price as the defining metric of Nadella’s tenure, but the stock price triumph has followed something more fundamental and harder to measure: how he changed the culture of the entire organization.

Nadella’s term at Microsoft has paralleled my own here at TechCrunch. I started in April of 2014, and in one of my first posts, I wrote about the difficulty of substantive change inside an organization the size of Microsoft. In those early moments of both our tenures, I recognized a subtle shift was taking place, one toward service, something Microsoft hadn’t been known for under his predecessors Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates.

Microsoft’s five-year stock price journey under Satya Nadella. Stock chart: Yahoo Finance

But Nadella’s inauguration came at a time when technology itself was shifting, moving from a monolithic model — where IT shopped mostly at one vendor, and they were a Microsoft shop or an Oracle shop or an IBM shop, buying a full stack of products — to one where they subscribe to cloud services and choose the best of breed.

This was also happening against the backdrop of the Consumerization of IT, where power was shifting from large administrative departments to users and teams. Nadella seemed to understand all of this.

The shift in strategy, as I wrote, probably began long before Nadella was handed the keys to the CEO office, but perhaps it took a different kind of leader, like Nadella, to turn the battleship that was Microsoft Corporation. Every company has its own politics and biases, and I’m sure Microsoft did as well, but Nadella seemed to manage those, reorganizing the company over time, and shifting priorities. It didn’t come without the pain of layoffs, including one in 2017 when thousands of people were let go. Long-time executives like COO Kevin Turner and head of Windows and devices, Terry Myerson, also left the company.

But Microsoft went from a company trying to compel customers to buy an all-Microsoft, all-the-time kind of approach to one that recognized it was important to work across platforms and to partner widely. To show how serious he was, a year after he started, Nadella set aside his differences with Marc Benioff and Salesforce, and appeared at Dreamforce, Salesforce’s massive customer conference. That was hugely symbolic, given the two companies had engaged in dueling lawsuits over the years, but this was a new day at Microsoft, and Nadella was out to prove it.

In a quote I’ve come back to a number of times over the years, Nadella laid out his new vision of cooperation. While he was going to compete fiercely, of course, he also was going to cooperate where it made sense, because customers demanded it — and under Nadella, it’s all about the customer.

“It is incumbent upon us, especially those of us who are platform vendors to partner broadly to solve real pain points our customers have,” Nadella said at the time. He wasn’t ceding markets, or failing to compete when it mattered, but he also recognized to make customers happy, he had to partner when it made sense.

Back in the days before Satya, partners and developers talked about a much more hostile environment, where it was difficult to get things done, to get the resources they needed, and the attitude was not one of cooperation, but almost hostility. That changed under Nadella, and he should get credit for that.

That all matters, of course, because in the age of the cloud, Nadella’s Dreamforce quote is spot on. Customers expect vendors to cooperate. They expect open APIs. They expect the platform to be friendly to developers — and under Nadella’s leadership, all of this has happened.

The company has also paid closer attention to issues like accessibility, with features such as real-time captions and the new Xbox adaptive controller. Microsoft has instituted programs under Nadella to use AI to improve accessibility, and he has also spoken frequently about responsible AI development.

Nadella has also led an aggressive acquisition strategy using his company’s cash to buy companies big and small. The splashiest acquisitions were LinkedIn for a whopping $26.2 billion in 2016 and GitHub for $7.5 billion last year, but there have been a host of much smaller purchases, most for much less than a billion dollars, that have filled in holes around security, developer productivity, gaming and a wide variety of cloud services.

It is exceedingly difficult to successfully navigate these kinds of broad cultural changes inside a large organization, and while it is probably still a work in progress, Nadella has been mostly effective to this point. The stock price has followed that broader change, but it is not the story here. The story is one of leadership and change management inside a large organization.

Jan
24
2019
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Apple finally brings Microsoft Office to the Mac App Store, and there is much rejoicing

That slow clap you hear spreading around the internet today could be due to the fact that Apple has finally added Microsoft Office to the Mac App Store. The package will include Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook and OneNote.

Shaan Pruden, senior director of worldwide developer relations at Apple, says that when the company overhauled the App Store last year, it added the ability to roll several apps into a subscription package with the idea of bringing Microsoft Office into the fold. That lack of bundling had been a stumbling block to an earlier partnership.

“One of the features that we brought specifically in working with Microsoft was the ability to subscribe to bundles, which is obviously something that they would need in order to bring Office 365 to the Mac App Store.”

That’s because Microsoft sells Office 365 subscriptions as a package of applications, and it didn’t want to alter the experience by forcing customers to download each one individually, Jared Spataro, corporate vice president for Microsoft 365 explained.

PowerPoint on the Mac. Photo: Apple

Spataro said that until now, customers could of course go directly to Microsoft or another retail outlet to subscribe to the same bundle, but what today’s announcement does is wrap the subscription process into an integrated Mac experience where installation and updates all happen in a way you expect with macOS.

“The apps themselves are updated through the App Store, and we’ve done a lot of great work between the two companies to make sure that the experience really feels good and feels like it’s fully integrated,” he said. That includes support for dark mode, photo continuity to easily insert photos into Office apps from Apple devices and app-specific toolbars for the Touch Bar.

A subscription will run you $69 for an individual or $99 for a household. The latter allows up to six household members to piggyback on the subscription, and each person gets one terabyte of storage, to boot. What’s more, you can access your subscription across all of your Apple, Android and Windows devices and your files, settings and preferences will follow wherever you go.

Businesses can order Microsoft Office bundles through the App Store and then distribute them using the Apple Business Manager, a tool Apple developed last year to help IT manage the application distribution process. Once installed, users have the same ability to access their subscriptions, complete with settings across devices.

Microsoft OneNote on the Mac. Photo: Apple

While Apple and Microsoft have always had a complicated relationship, the two companies have been working together in one capacity or another for nearly three decades now. Neither company was willing to discuss the timeline it took to get to this point, or the financial arrangements between the two companies, but in the standard split for subscriptions, the company gets 70 percent of the price the first year with Apple getting 30 percent for hosting fees. That changes to an 85/15 split in subsequent years.

Apple noted that worldwide availability could take up to 24 hours depending on your location, but you’ve waited this long, you can wait one more day, right?

Jan
24
2019
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Microsoft acquires Citus Data

Microsoft today announced that it has acquired Citus Data, a company that focused on making PostgreSQL databases faster and more scalable. Citus’ open-source PostgreSQL extension essentially turns the application into a distributed database and, while there has been a lot of hype around the NoSQL movement and document stores, relational databases — and especially PostgreSQL — are still a growing market, in part because of tools from companies like Citus that overcome some of their earlier limitations.

Unsurprisingly, Microsoft plans to work with the Citus Data team to “accelerate the delivery of key, enterprise-ready features from Azure to PostgreSQL and enable critical PostgreSQL workloads to run on Azure with confidence.” The Citus co-founders echo this in their own statement, noting that “as part of Microsoft, we will stay focused on building an amazing database on top of PostgreSQL that gives our users the game-changing scale, performance, and resilience they need. We will continue to drive innovation in this space.”

PostgreSQL is obviously an open-source tool, and while the fact that Microsoft is now a major open-source contributor doesn’t come as a surprise anymore, it’s worth noting that the company stresses that it will continue to work with the PostgreSQL community. In an email, a Microsoft spokesperson also noted that “the acquisition is a proof point in the company’s commitment to open source and accelerating Azure PostgreSQL performance and scale.”

Current Citus customers include the likes of real-time analytics service Chartbeat, email security service Agari and PushOwl, though the company notes that it also counts a number of Fortune 100 companies among its users (they tend to stay anonymous). The company offers both a database as a service, an on-premises enterprise version and the free open-source edition. For the time being, it seems like that’s not changing, though over time I would suspect that Microsoft will transition users of the hosted service to Azure.

The price of the acquisition was not disclosed. Citus Data, which was founded in 2010 and graduated from the Y Combinator program, previously raised more than $13 million from the likes of Khosla Ventures, SV Angel and Data Collective.

Jan
15
2019
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Microsoft continues to build government security credentials ahead of JEDI decision

While the DoD is in the process of reviewing the $10 billion JEDI cloud contract RFPs (assuming the work continues during the government shutdown), Microsoft continues to build up its federal government security bona fides, regardless.

Today the company announced it has achieved the highest level of federal government clearance for the Outlook mobile app, allowing US Government Community Cloud (GCC) High and Department of Defense employees to use the mobile app. This is on top of FedRamp compliance, the company achieved last year.

“To meet the high level of government security and compliance requirements, we updated the Outlook mobile architecture so that it establishes a direct connection between the Outlook mobile app and the compliant Exchange Online backend services using a native Microsoft sync technology and removes middle tier services,” the company wrote in a blog post announcing the update.

The update will allows these highly security-conscious employees to access some of the more recent updates to Outlook Mobile such as the ability to add a comment when canceling an event.

This is in line with government security updates the company made last year. While none of these changes are specifically designed to help win the $10 billion JEDI cloud contract, they certainly help make a case for Microsoft from a technology standpoint

As Microsoft corporate vice president for Azure, Julia White stated in a blog post last year, which we covered, “Moving forward, we are simplifying our approach to regulatory compliance for federal agencies, so that our government customers can gain access to innovation more rapidly,” White wrote at the time. The Outlook Mobile release is clearly in line with that.

Today’s announcement comes after the Pentagon announced just last week that it has awarded Microsoft a separate large contract for $1.7 billion. This involves providing Microsoft Enterprise Services for the Department of Defense (DoD), Coast Guard and the intelligence community, according to a statement from DoD.

All of this comes ahead of decision on the massive $10 billion, winner-take-all cloud contract. Final RFPs were submitted in October and the DoD is expected to make a decision in April. The process has not been without controversy with Oracle and IBM submitting a formal protests even before the RFP deadline — and more recently, Oracle filing a lawsuit alleging the contract terms violate federal procurement laws. Oracle has been particularly concerned that the contract was designed to favor Amazon, a point the DoD has repeatedly denied.

Dec
11
2018
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The Cloud Native Computing Foundation adds etcd to its open-source stable

The Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF), the open-source home of projects like Kubernetes and Vitess, today announced that its technical committee has voted to bring a new project on board. That project is etcd, the distributed key-value store that was first developed by CoreOS (now owned by Red Hat, which in turn will soon be owned by IBM). Red Hat has now contributed this project to the CNCF.

Etcd, which is written in Go, is already a major component of many Kubernetes deployments, where it functions as a source of truth for coordinating clusters and managing the state of the system. Other open-source projects that use etcd include Cloud Foundry, and companies that use it in production include Alibaba, ING, Pinterest, Uber, The New York Times and Nordstrom.

“Kubernetes and many other projects like Cloud Foundry depend on etcd for reliable data storage. We’re excited to have etcd join CNCF as an incubation project and look forward to cultivating its community by improving its technical documentation, governance and more,” said Chris Aniszczyk, COO of CNCF, in today’s announcement. “Etcd is a fantastic addition to our community of projects.”

Today, etcd has well over 450 contributors and nine maintainers from eight different companies. The fact that it ended up at the CNCF is only logical, given that the foundation is also the host of Kubernetes. With this, the CNCF now plays host to 17 projects that fall under its “incubated technologies” umbrella. In addition to etcd, these include OpenTracing, Fluentd, Linkerd, gRPC, CoreDNS, containerd, rkt, CNI, Jaeger, Notary, TUF, Vitess, NATS Helm, Rook and Harbor. Kubernetes, Prometheus and Envoy have already graduated from this incubation stage.

That’s a lot of projects for one foundation to manage, but the CNCF community is also extraordinarily large. This week alone about 8,000 developers are converging on Seattle for KubeCon/CloudNativeCon, the organization’s biggest event yet, to talk all things containers. It surely helps that the CNCF has managed to bring competitors like AWS, Microsoft, Google, IBM and Oracle under a single roof to collaboratively work on building these new technologies. There is a risk of losing focus here, though, something that happened to the OpenStack project when it went through a similar growth and hype phase. It’ll be interesting to see how the CNCF will manage this as it brings on more projects (with Istio, the increasingly popular service mesh, being a likely candidate for coming over to the CNCF as well).

Dec
04
2018
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Microsoft and Docker team up to make packaging and running cloud-native applications easier

Microsoft and Docker today announced a new joint open-source project, the Cloud Native Application Bundle (CNAB), that aims to make the lifecycle management of cloud-native applications easier. At its core, the CNAB is nothing but a specification that allows developers to declare how an application should be packaged and run. With this, developers can define their resources and then deploy the application to anything from their local workstation to public clouds.

The specification was born inside Microsoft, but as the team talked to Docker, it turns out that the engineers there were working on a similar project. The two decided to combine forces and launch the result as a single open-source project. “About a year ago, we realized we’re both working on the same thing,” Microsoft’s Gabe Monroy told me. “We decided to combine forces and bring it together as an industry standard.”

As part of this, Microsoft is launching its own reference implementation of a CNAB client today. Duffle, as it’s called, allows users to perform all the usual lifecycle steps (install, upgrade, uninstall), create new CNAB bundles and sign them cryptographically. Docker is working on integrating CNAB into its own tools, too.

Microsoft also today launched Visual Studio extension for building and hosting these bundles, as well as an example implementation of a bundle repository server and an Electron installer that lets you install a bundle with the help of a GUI.

Now it’s worth noting that we’re talking about a specification and reference implementations here. There is obviously a huge ecosystem of lifecycle management tools on the market today that all have their own strengths and weaknesses. “We’re not going to be able to unify that tooling,” said Monroy. “I don’t think that’s a feasible goal. But what we can do is we can unify the model around it, specifically the lifecycle management experience as well as the packaging and distribution experience. That’s effectively what Docker has been able to do with the single-workload case.”

Over time, Microsoft and Docker would like for the specification to end up in a vendor-neutral foundation. Which one remains to be seen, though the Open Container Initiative seems like the natural home for a project like this.

Nov
19
2018
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Microsoft acquires FSLogix to enhance Office 365 virtual desktop experience

Back in September, Microsoft announced a virtual desktop solution that lets customers run Office 365 and Windows 10 in the cloud. They mentioned several partners in the announcement that were working on solutions with them. One of those was FSLogix, a Georgia virtual desktop startup. Today, Microsoft announced it has acquired FSLogix. It did not share the purchase price.

“FSLogix is a next-generation app-provisioning platform that reduces the resources, time and labor required to support virtualization,” Brad Anderson, corporate VP for Microsoft Office 365 and Julia White, corporate VP for Microsoft Azure,  href=”https://blogs.microsoft.com/blog/2018/11/19/microsoft-acquires-fslogix-to-enhance-the-office-365-virtualization-experience/”>wrote in a joint blog post today.

When Microsoft made the virtual desktop announcement in September they named Citrix, CloudJumper, Lakeside Software, Liquidware, People Tech Group, ThinPrint and FSLogix as partners working on solutions. Apparently, the company decided it wanted to own one of those experiences and acquired FSLogix.

Microsoft believes by incorporating the FSLogix solution, it will provide a better virtual desktop experience for its customers by enabling better performance and faster load times, especially for Office 365 ProPlus customers.

Randy Cook, founder and CTO at FSLogix, said the acquisition made sense given how well the two companies have worked together over the years. “From the beginning, in working closely with several teams at Microsoft, we recognized that our missions were completely aligned. Both FSLogix and Microsoft are dedicated to providing the absolute best experience for companies choosing to deploy virtual desktops,” Cook wrote in a blog post announcing the acquisition.

Lots of companies have what are essentially dumb terminals running just the tools each employee needs, rather than a fully functioning standalone PC. Citrix has made a living offering these services. When employees come in to start the day, they sign in with their credentials and they get a virtual desktop with the tools they need to do their jobs. Microsoft’s version of this involves Office 365 and Windows 10 running on Azure.

FSLogix was founded in 2013 and has raised more than $10 million, according to data on Crunchbase. Today’s acquisition, which has already closed according to Microsoft, comes on the heels of last week’s announcement that the company was buying Xoxco, an Austin-based developer shop with experience building conversational bots.

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