Apr
18
2019
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Microsoft delves deeper into IoT with Express Logic acquisition

Microsoft has never been shy about being acquisitive, and today it announced it’s buying Express Logic, a San Diego company that has developed a real-time operating system (RTOS) aimed at controlling the growing number of IoT devices in the world.

The companies did not share the purchase price.

Express Logic is not some wide-eyed, pie-in-the-sky startup. It has been around for 23 years, building (in its own words) “industrial-grade RTOS and middleware software solutions for embedded and IoT developers.” The company boasts some 6.2 billion (yes, billion) devices running its systems. That number did not escape Sam George, director of Azure IoT at Microsoft, but as he wrote in a blog post announcing the deal, there is a reason for this popularity.

“This widespread popularity is driven by demand for technology to support resource constrained environments, especially those that require safety and security,” George wrote.

Holger Mueller, an analyst with Constellation Research, says that market share also gives Microsoft instant platform credibility. “This is a key acquisition for Microsoft: on the strategy side Microsoft is showing it is serious with investing heavily into IoT, and on the product side it’s a key step to get into the operating system code of the popular RTOS,” Mueller told TechCrunch.

The beauty of Express Logic’s approach is that it can work in low-power and low-resource environments and offers a proven solution for a range or products. “Manufacturers building products across a range of categories — from low-capacity sensors like lightbulbs and temperature gauges to air conditioners, medical devices and network appliances — leverage the size, safety and security benefits of Express Logic solutions to achieve faster time to market,” George wrote.

Writing in a blog post to his customers announcing the deal, Express Logic CEO William E. Lamie, expressed optimism that the company can grow even further as part of the Microsoft family. “Effective immediately, our ThreadX RTOS and supporting software technology, as well as our talented engineering staff join Microsoft. This complements Microsoft’s existing premier security offering in the microcontroller space,” he wrote.

Microsoft is getting an established company with a proven product that can help it scale its Azure IoT business. The acquisition is part of a $5 billion investment in IoT the company announced last April that includes a number of Azure pieces, such as Azure Sphere, Azure Digital Twins, Azure IoT Edge, Azure Maps and Azure IoT Central.

“With this acquisition, we will unlock access to billions of new connected endpoints, grow the number of devices that can seamlessly connect to Azure and enable new intelligent capabilities. Express Logic’s ThreadX RTOS joins Microsoft’s growing support for IoT devices and is complementary with Azure Sphere, our premier security offering in the microcontroller space,” George wrote.

Apr
09
2019
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Slack integration with Office 365 one more step toward total enterprise integration

Slack’s goal of integrating enterprise tools in the chat interface has been a major differentiator from the giant companies it’s competing with like Microsoft and Facebook. Last year, it bought Astro, specifically with the goal of integrating enterprise productivity tools inside Slack, and today it announced new integrations with Microsoft OneDrive and Outlook.

Specifically, Slack is integrating calendar, files and calls and bringing in integrations with other services, including Box, Dropbox and Zoom.

Andy Pflaum, director of project management at Slack, came over in the Astro deal, and he says one of the primary goals of the acquisition was to help build connections like this to Microsoft and Google productivity tools.

“When we joined Slack, it was to build out the interoperability between Slack and Microsoft’s products, particularly Office and Office 365 products, and the comparable products from Google, G Suite. We focused on deep integration with mail and calendar in Slack, as well as bringing in files and calls in from Microsoft, Google and other leading providers like Zoom, Box and Dropbox,” Pflaum, who was co-founder and CEO at Astro, told TechCrunch.

For starters, the company is announcing deep integration with Outlook that enables users to get and respond to invitations in Slack. You can also join a meeting with a click directly from Slack, whether that’s Zoom, WebEx or Skype for Business. What’s more, when you’re in a meeting, your status will update automatically in Slack, saving users from manually doing this (or more likely forgetting and getting a flurry of Slack questions in the middle of a meeting).

Another integration lets you share emails directly into Slack. Instead of copying and pasting or forwarding the email to a large group, you can click a Slack button in the Outlook interface and share it as a direct message with a group or to your personal Slack channel.

File sharing is not being left behind here either, whether from Microsoft, Box or Dropbox; users will be able to share files inside of Slack easily. Finally, users will be able to view full Office document previews inside of Slack, another step in avoiding tasking switching to get work done.

Screenshot: Slack

Mike Gotta, an analyst at Gartner who has been following the collaboration space for many years, says the integration has done a good job of preserving the user experience, while allowing for a seamless connection between email, calendar and files. He says that this could give them an edge in the highly competitive collaboration market, and more importantly allow users to maintain context.

“The collaboration market is highly fragmented with many vendors adding ‘just a little’ collaboration to products designed for specific purposes. Buyers can find that this type of collaboration in context to the flow of work is more impactful than switching to a generalized tool that lacks situational awareness of the task at hand. Knowledge-based work often involves process and project-related applications, so the more we can handle transitions across tools, the more productive the user experience becomes. More importantly there’s less context fragmentation for the individual and team,” Gotta told TechCrunch.

These updates are about staying one step ahead of the competition, and being able to run Microsoft tools inside of Slack gives customers another reason to stick with (or to buy) Slack instead of Microsoft’s competing product, Teams.

All of this new functionality is designed to work in both mobile and desktop versions of the product and is available today.

Apr
05
2019
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On balance, the cloud has been a huge boon to startups

Today’s startups have a distinct advantage when it comes to launching a company because of the public cloud. You don’t have to build infrastructure or worry about what happens when you scale too quickly. The cloud vendors take care of all that for you.

But last month when Pinterest announced its IPO, the company’s cloud spend raised eyebrows. You see, the company is spending $750 million a year on cloud services, more specifically to AWS. When your business is primarily focused on photos and video, and needs to scale at a regular basis, that bill is going to be high.

That price tag prompted Erica Joy, a Microsoft engineer to publish this Tweet and start a little internal debate here at TechCrunch. Startups, after all, have a dog in this fight, and it’s worth exploring if the cloud is helping feed the startup ecosystem, or sending your bills soaring as they have with Pinterest.

For starters, it’s worth pointing out that Ms. Joy works for Microsoft, which just happens to be a primary competitor of Amazon’s in the cloud business. Regardless of her personal feelings on the matter, I’m sure Microsoft would be more than happy to take over that $750 million bill from Amazon. It’s a nice chunk of business, but all that aside, do startups benefit from having access to cloud vendors?

Apr
03
2019
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Okta unveils $50M in-house venture capital fund

Identity management software provider Okta, which went public two years ago in what was one of the first pure-cloud subscription-based company IPOs, wants to fund the next generation of identity, security and privacy startups.

At its big customer conference Oktane, where the company has also announced a new level of identity protection at the server level, chief operating officer Frederic Kerrest (pictured above, right, with chief executive officer Todd McKinnon) will unveil a $50 million investment fund meant to back early-stage startups leveraging artificial intelligence, machine learning and blockchain technology.

“We view this as a natural extension of what we are doing today,” Okta senior vice president Monty Gray told TechCrunch. Gray was hired last year to oversee corporate development, i.e. beef up Okta’s M&A strategy.

Gray and Kerrest tell TechCrunch that Okta Ventures will invest capital in existing Okta partners, as well as other companies in the burgeoning identity management ecosystem. The team managing the fund will look to Okta’s former backers, Sequoia, Andreessen Horowitz and Greylock, for support in the deal sourcing process.

Okta Ventures will write checks sized between $250,000 and $2 million to eight to 10 early-stage businesses per year.

“It’s just a way of making sure we are aligning all our work and support with the right companies who have the right vision and values because there’s a lot of noise around identity, ML and AI,” Kerrest said. “It’s about formalizing the support strategy we’ve had for years and making sure people are clear of the fact we are helping these organizations build because it’s helpful to our customers.”

Okta Ventures’ first bet is Trusted Key, a blockchain-based digital identity platform that previously raised $3 million from Founders Co-Op. Okta’s investment in the startup, founded by former Microsoft, Oracle and Symantec executives, represents its expanding interest in the blockchain.

“Blockchain as a backdrop for identity is cutting edge if not bleeding edge,” Gray said.

Okta, founded in 2009, had raised precisely $231 million from Sequoia, Andreessen Horowitz, Greylock, Khosla Ventures, Floodgate and others prior to its exit. The company’s stock has fared well since its IPO, debuting at $17 per share in 2017 and climbing to more than $85 apiece with a market cap of $9.6 billion as of Tuesday closing.

Apr
02
2019
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Microsoft teams up with BMW for the IoT-focused Open Manufacturing Platform

Car companies are making big investments in technology to help ensure that they are not cut out of the next generation of transportation and automotive manufacturing, and today came the latest development in that trend.

The BMW Group and Microsoft announced they would team up in a new effort called the Open Manufacturing Platform, aimed at developing and encouraging more collaborative IoT development in the manufacturing sector, focusing on smart factory solutions and building standards to develop them in areas like machine connectivity and on-premises systems integration.

The two companies have not disclosed how much they intend to invest in the project — we have sent a message to ask. The plan will be to bring in more manufacturers and suppliers — the goal, they say, is to have between four and six others with them, working on 15 use cases by the end of this year — working with open source components, open industrial standards and open data to develop both hardware and software that runs on it.

The two say that future partners do not have to be from within the automotive industry.

The OMP will be built on Microsoft’s industrial IoT platform — part of its Azure cloud business. But this is a natural progression of how Microsoft and BMW were already working together. BMW already has 3,000 machines running on Azure cloud, IoT and AI services in its existing robots and in-factory autonomous transport systems, and it said it will be contributing some of the technology that it had already built — for example around its self-driving systems — into the group as part of the effort.

“Microsoft is joining forces with the BMW Group to transform digital production efficiency across the industry,” Scott Guthrie, executive vice president, Microsoft Cloud + AI Group, said in a presentation in Germany today. “Our commitment to building an open community will create new opportunities for collaboration across the entire manufacturing value chain.”

“Mastering the complex task of producing individualized premium products requires innovative IT and software solutions,” added Oliver Zipse, member of the Board of Management of BMW AG, Production, a statement. “The interconnection of production sites and systems as well as the secure integration of partners and suppliers are particularly important. We have been relying on the cloud since 2016 and are consistently developing new approaches. With the Open Manufacturing Platform as the next step, we want to make our solutions available to other companies and jointly leverage potential in order to secure our strong position in the market in the long term.”

The problem that Microsoft and BMW are going after here is a longstanding one. Much of the computing in the world of IT has been built around open standards, or in any event on very widely-used proprietary platforms that can interface with each other. The same does not go in the world of manufacturing, where proprietary systems are specific to each manufacturer, making them difficult to modify and often impossible to use in conjunction with other proprietary systems.

That ultimately slows down how things have been able to evolve, and will mean that implementing new generations of technology becomes expensive or even in some cases impossible. And given the speed with which things are moving, and the increasing sophistication of the machines that are being built (cars as “hardware”), something had to change.

That is what BMW and Microsoft are addressing. For BMW it will give it a hand in helping shape how standards develop, and for Microsoft it will give it a potential window into expanding its business in this enterprise sector.

The collaborative approach has been a big one for tech companies hoping to find a common way forward in the future of computing. Microsoft may own a lot of proprietary platforms that are not open source, but it’s making efforts to collaborate more in a number of other ways. It works with SAP, Adobe, WPP and others on the Open Data Initiative; with Intel, Google and others it’s working on an open standard for connecting data centers; it’s part of an open standard initiative for software licensing; and it’s part of a new cross-licensing patent database.

Mar
28
2019
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Microsoft gives 500 patents to startups

Microsoft today announced a major expansion of its Azure IP Advantage program, which provides its Azure users with protection against patent trolls. This program now also provides customers who are building IoT solutions that connect to Azure with access to 10,000 patents to defend themselves against intellectual property lawsuits.

What’s maybe most interesting here, though, is that Microsoft is also donating 500 patents to startups in the LOT Network. This organization, which counts companies like Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Netflix, SAP, Epic Games, Ford, GM, Lyft and Uber among its close to 400 members, is designed to protect companies against patent trolls by giving them access to a wide library of patents from its member companies and other sources.

“The LOT Network is really committed to helping address the proliferation of intellectual property lawsuits, especially ones that are brought by non-practicing entities, or so-called trolls,” Microsoft  CVP and Deputy General Counsel Erich Andersen told me. 

This new program goes well beyond basic protection from patent trolls, though. Qualified startups who join the LOT Network can acquire Microsoft patents as part of their free membership and as Andersen stressed, the startups will own them outright. The LOT network will be able to provide its startup members with up to three patents from this collection.

There’s one additional requirement here, though: To qualify for getting the patents, these startups also have to meet a $1,000 per month Azure spend. As Andersen told me, though, they don’t have to make any kind of forward pledge. The company will simply look at a startup’s last three monthly Azure bills.

“We want to help the LOT Network grow its network of startups,” Andersen said. “To provide an incentive, we are going to provide these patents to them.” He noted that startups are obviously interested in getting access to patents as a foundation of their companies, but also to raise capital and to defend themselves against trolls.

The patents we’re talking about here cover a wide range of technologies as well as geographies. Andersen noted that we’re talking about U.S. patents as well as European and Chinese patents, for example.

“The idea is that these startups come from a diverse set of industry sectors,” he said. “The hope we have is that when they approach LOT, they’ll find patents among those 500 that are going to be interesting to basically almost any company that might want a foundational set of patents for their business.”

As for the extended Azure IP Advantage program, it’s worth noting that every Azure customer who spends more than $1,000 per month over the past three months and hasn’t filed a patent infringement lawsuit against another Azure customer in the last two years can automatically pick one of the patents in the program’s portfolio to protect itself against frivolous patent lawsuits from trolls (and that’s a different library of patents from the one Microsoft is donating to the LOT Network as part of the startup program).

As Andersen noted, the team looked at how it could enhance the IP program by focusing on a number of specific areas. Microsoft is obviously investing a lot into IoT, so extending the program to this area makes sense. “What we’re basically saying is that if the customer is using IoT technology — regardless of whether it’s Microsoft technology or not — and it’s connected to Azure, then we’re going to provide this patent pick right to help customers defend themselves against patent suits,” Andersen said.

In addition, for those who do choose to use Microsoft IoT technology across the board, Microsoft will provide indemnification, too.

Patent trolls have lately started acquiring IoT patents, so chances are they are getting ready to make use of them and that we’ll see quite a bit of patent litigation in this space in the future. “The early signs we’re seeing indicate that this is something that customers are going to care about in the future,” said Andersen.

Mar
27
2019
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Microsoft, Adobe and SAP prepare to expand their Open Data Initiative

At last year’s Microsoft Ignite conference, the CEOs of Microsoft, Adobe and SAP took the stage to announce the launch of the Open Data Initiative. The idea behind this effort was to make it easier for their customers to move data between each others’ services by standardizing on a common data format and helping them move their data out of their respective silos and into a single customer-chosen data lake. At this week’s Adobe Summit, the three companies today announced how they plan to expand this program as they look to bring in additional partners.

“The intent of the companies joining forces was really to solve a common customer problem that we hear time and time again, which is that there are high-value business data tends to be very siloed in a variety of different applications,” Alysa Taylor, Microsoft’s corporate vice president, Business Applications & Global Industry, told me. “Being able to extract that data, reason over that data, garner intelligence from that data, is very cost-prohibitive and it’s very manual and time-consuming.”

The core principle of the alliance is that the customers own their data and they should be able to get as much value out of it as they can. Ideally, having this common data schema means that the customer doesn’t have to figure out ways to transform the data from these vendors and can simply flow all of it into a single data lake that then in turn feeds the various analytics services, machine learning systems and other tools that these companies offer.

At the Adobe Summit today, the three companies showed their first customer use case based on how Unilever is making use of this common data standard. More importantly, though, they also stressed that the Open Data Initiative is indeed open to others. As a first step, the three companies today announced the formation of a partner advisory council.

“What this basically means is that we’ve extended it out to key participants in the ecosystem to come and join us as part of this ODI effort,” Adobe’s VP of Ecosystem Development Amit Ahuja told me. “What we’re starting with is really a focus around two big groups of partners. Number one is, who are the other really interesting ISVs who have a lot of this core data that we want to make sure we can bring into this kind of single unified view. And the second piece is who are the major players out there that are trying to help these customers around their enterprise architecture.”

The first 12 partners that are joining this new council include Accenture, Amadeus, Capgemini, Change Healthcare, Cognizant, EY, Finastra, Genesys, Hootsuite, Inmobi, Sprinklr and WPP . This is very much a first step, though. Over time, the group expects to expand far beyond this first set of partners and include a much larger group of stakeholders.

“We really want to make this really broad in a way that we can quickly make progress and demonstrate that what we’re talking about from a conceptual process has really hard customer benefits attached to it,” Abhay Kumar, SAP’s global vice president, Global Business Development & Ecosystem, noted. The use cases the alliance has identified focus on market intelligence, sales intelligence and services intelligence, he added.

Today, as enterprises often pull in data from dozens of disparate systems, making sense of all that information is hard enough, but to even get to this point, enterprises first have to transform it and make it usable. To do so, they then have to deploy another set of applications that massages the data. “I don’t want to go and buy another 15 or 20 applications to make that work,” Ahuja said. “I want to realize the investment and the ROI of the applications that I’ve already bought.”

All three stressed that this is very much a collaborative effort that spans the engineering, sales and product marketing groups.

Mar
26
2019
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Adobe announces deeper data sharing partnership with Microsoft around accounts

Microsoft and Adobe have been building a relationship for some time, and today at Adobe Summit in Las Vegas the two companies announced a deeper integration between the two platforms.

It involves sharing Marketo data, the company that Adobe acquired last September for $4.75 billion. Because it’s marketers, they were duty-bound to give it a new name. This data-sharing approach is being dubbed Account Based Experience, or ABX for short. The two companies are sharing data account data between a number of sources, including Marketo Engage in Adobe Experience Cloud and Microsoft Dynamics 365 for Sales, as well as the LinkedIn, the business social platform Microsoft bought in 2016 for a whopping $26.2 billion.

Microsoft has been trying to find ways to put that LinkedIn data to work, and tools like Marketo can use the data in LinkedIn to understand their account contacts better. Steve Lucas, former CEO at Marketo, who is now senior vice president and head of the Marketo team at Adobe, says accounts tend to be much more complex sales than selling to individuals, involving multiple decision makers. It’s a sales cycle that can stretch on for months, and having access to additional data about the account contacts can have a big impact.

“With these new account-based capabilities, marketing and sales teams will have increased alignment around the people and accounts they are engaging, and new ways to measure that business impact,” Lucas explained in a statement.

Brent Leary, principal at CRM Essentials, who has been working in CRM, customer service and marketing for years, sees this as a useful partnership for customers from both vendors. “Integrating Microsoft Dynamics and LinkedIn more closely with Marketo gives Adobe’s Experience Cloud some great data to leverage in order to have a more complete picture of B2B customers,” Leary told TechCrunch.

The goal is to close complex sales, and having access to more complete data across the two product sets can help achieve that.

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.

Mar
20
2019
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Microsoft Defender comes to the Mac

Microsoft today announced that it is bringing its Microsoft Defender Advanced Threat Protection (ATP) to the Mac. Previously, this was a Windows solution for protecting the machines of Microsoft 365 subscribers and assets of the IT admins that try to keep them safe. It was also previously called Windows Defender ATP, but given that it is now on the Mac, too, Microsoft decided to drop the “Windows Defender” moniker in favor or “Microsoft Defender.”

“For us, it’s all about experiences that follow the person and help the individual be more productive,” Jared Spataro, Microsoft’s corporate VP for Office and Windows, told me. “Just like we did with Office back in the day — that was a big move for us to move it off of Windows-only — but it was absolutely the right thing. So that’s where we’re headed.”

He stressed that this means that Microsoft is moving off its “Windows-centric approach to life.” He likened it to bringing the Office apps to the iPad and Android. “We’re just headed in that same direction of saying that it’s our intent that we can secure every endpoint so that this Microsoft 365 experience is not just Windows-centric,” Spataro said. Indeed, he argued that the news here isn’t even so much the launch of this service for the Mac but that Microsoft is reorienting the way it thinks about how it can deliver value for Microsoft 365 clients.

Given that Microsoft Defender is part of the Microsoft 365 package, you may wonder why those users would even care about the Mac, but there are plenty of enterprises that use a mix of Windows machines and Mac, and which provide all of their employees with Office already. Having a security solution that spans both systems can greatly reduce complexity for IT departments — and keeping up with security vulnerabilities on one system is hard enough to begin with.

In addition to the launch of the Mac version of Microsoft Defender ATP, the company also today announced the launch of new threat and vulnerability management capabilities for the service. Over the last few months, Microsoft had already launched a number of new features that help businesses proactively monitor and identify security threats.

“What we’re hearing from customers now is that the landscape is getting increasingly sophisticated, the volume of alerts that we’re starting to get is pretty overwhelming,” Spataro said. “We really don’t have the budget to hire the thousands of people required to sort through all this and figure out what to do.”

So with this new tool, Microsoft uses its machine learning smarts to prioritize threads and present them to its customers for remediation.

To Spataro, these announcements come down to the fact that Microsoft is slowly morphing into more of a security company than ever before. “I think we’ve made a lot more progress than people realize,” he said. “And it’s been driven by the market.” He noted that its customers have long asked Microsoft to help them protect their endpoints. Now, he argues, customers have realized that Microsoft is moving to this person-centric approach (instead of a Windows-centric one) and that the company may now be able to help them protect large parts of their systems. At the same time, Microsoft realized that it could use all of the billions of signals it gets from its users to better help its customers proactively.

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