Trust, privacy and openness - the 'holy trinity' for Microsoft, according to CEO Satya Nadella in his Build developer conference keynote.
It was a presentation that kicked off in large part as a highly aspirational address about “imagining what's possible” and how to “galvanize and come together as engineers, as developers to make that world possible?”.
Nadella talked up a ‘smart’ world where everything is driven by software, telling his audience:
That's the opportunity in front of us. The opportunity for developers and our colleagues from all other disciplines to come together to build this new world. That's the sense of purpose mission that grounds us at Microsoft, to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more. It starts by empowering all of you as developers to go after that moonshot in any industry, in any sphere or life or society.
But with opportunity comes responsibility, he cautioned, an obligatory caveat in the post Facebook-scandals days:
It starts with us as platform providers, but we have a collective responsibility. A few years ago when we started talking about it, it sounds a bit prosaic to talk about responsibility in tech conferences where it's all about the glitz of technology, but it's no longer the case.
To us, really thinking about the trust in everything that we build, in the technology we build, is so core. And as engineers, we need to truly incorporate this in the core design process, in the tooling around how we build things, so when we think about privacy and the fact that privacy is a human right is as much as an engineering design principle as an engineering process issue.
The checklist of considerations goes on, he added - cybersecurity, AI ethics, building systems without bias, all “core engineering challenges where we have to push the state of the art around the tooling, the process and the responsibility we take to what we build”.
Then there’s the third leg - openness. On this front, Nadella sought to align Microsoft, once perceived as the pinnacle of proprietary tech, as a champion of open source. To that end, he flagged up a project known as ElectionGuard, designed to ensure transparency and verifiability in election systems.
This was a savvy play for the high ground by the Microsoft CEO at a time when his counterpart at Facebook is fighting negative perceptions around this topic. ElectionGuard is a collaboration with partner Free&Fair which is due to be live on GitHub by the end of May. Microsoft’s contribution comes in the form of new tech for homomorphic encryption, which Nadella positioned as enabling a “software stack that can modernize all of the election infrastructure everywhere in the world”.
On to the hard sell
With the high ideals ticked off, it was on to the product sell, starting with the expanding Azure platform footprint, or as Nadella chose to colorfully pitch it:
We are building out Azure as the world's computer. We have 54 data center regions around the world. In fact, we are so thrilled to be the first public cloud with data center regions in the continent of Africa. We started operating out of South Africa.
We have over 90 compliance certifications, and why is that important? It's because we have to meet the real-world needs, regulated industries, data sovereignty needs, operational sovereignty needs. You need to be able to meet the world's complexity with what you build, so that it really enables all of you as developers to be able to build with less friction.
Again the theme of openness ran through the messaging, with Azure positioned as an open Platform`:
Windows Analytics is first-class. DotNet and Java are first class. SQL and Postgres are first class. We have Kubernetes workloads. We have RedHat. OpenShift workloads. We have workloads from VMware. We really want to make sure that every layer of the stack, again, meets the needs of developers.
A number of use case exemplars were touched upon briefly, ranging from Walgreens Boots Alliance through J.P. Morgan Chase to AT&T, but it was Starbucks that took center stage, appropriately enough given the Seattle location for Build 2019.
On show was the coffee giant’s internal AI platform, Deep Brew, an intelligent recommendation system based on reinforcement learning models. Deep Brew can make recommendations based on a number of factors, such as what’s selling well at a particular store at any given time of the year. After making their primary purchase, customers will be shown additional recommendations based on what others have chosen.
The company is also using Azure IoT Central to drive a connected coffee equipment network, enabling the firm to monitor machines across the stores real estate to make sure they are performing at optimum capacity and performance, as well as enabling Starbucks to run predictive maintenance models that flag up issues in advance.
Conversational computing and the coming of the bots was another idea touted by Nadella, who said that 3000 new bots are being built using the Microsoft Bot Framework every week. This enables businesses to build their own “conversational canvas”, he said, something that will become increasingly essential:
Just like you build websites, just like you build mobile applications, it becomes very important for every business out there to be in control of their own destiny when it comes to this new platform of conversations.
The data that is the conversation is perhaps one of the most important pieces of data that all of you as developers, as well as organizations, have. So, you want to ensure that that data is helping you, in fact, be in touch with your customers, your employees, and make them richer.
He cited two early use cases to make his point:
BMW decided that they're going to own the personal assistant experience inside their cars. Their brand needed to shine. And they're building, using the Bot Framework, their personal assistant. Similarly, you have Jet building their customer service agent using the Bot Framework, because after all customer service is something that is so key for any business. And the conversations that you have through customer service is one of the most important knowledge repositories you want to have to improve your service and products over time.
And Coca-Cola is using it across a variety of functions internally with their employees from IT to HR to finance. So, this is what we think is so critical when you think about conversational assistants, it's really about your building that capability and then using the distribution of other personal assistants. It's so important to recognize that.
Down to business
Amid all the ‘bleeding edge’, there as also an encouraging focus on the role of business applications and specifically Microsoft Dynamics 365. Nadella argued:
Business applications to me is such an important category, because whenever I go to anywhere in the United States or anywhere in the world, the one thing that I have the real privilege of is to meet with developers, independent software developers, who are building business applications.
This category is the life's blood of digital skills and software jobs all over the world. It really sort of shines the light that there is a lot of innovation happening beyond the West Coast of the United States and the East Coast of China when you think about the business applications category in particular.
Dynamics 365 has been completely rewritten to be an Azure cloud native app, he stated:
Everything about the architecture of Dynamics 365 itself is an amazing template for all of those who have built SQL Server applications in the past, and are now becoming multi-tenant SaaS applications. It's a unified solution. It's got AI built-in. But most importantly is its extensibility framework through Power Platform.
One of the hardest challenges for business applications has always been there's no such thing as a canonical business process. It always changes by industry, and more importantly it changes in time, because the businesses are not constant. So, how do you deal with the customization? How do you deal with IP from multiple ISVs in a particular instance? It's that customization with upgradeability, and those are some of the things that really Power Platform along with Dynamics 365 solves. What that means is there's a tremendous amount of traction for Dynamics today, there's 90% of the Fortune 500 are using Dynamics or Power Platform.
This was a typically confident keynote from Nadella, with some crowd-pleasing elements for the wider audience beyond the Build conference theater. The election protection initiative, for example, played to mainstream media in the kind of entirely positive manner that must infuriate Zuckerberg and Co. But Nadella wisely didn’t lose sight of his real audience - the developers, engineers and ISVs who are critical to the ongoing expansion of the Microsoft ecosystem, backed up with some strong practical examples of tech in action and a welcome reminder of the role of Dynamics in particular and business applications in general. In a busy week for vendor events, it was a strong start to one of Microsoft's most important gatherings of the year.