Build17 - Azure rising as Microsoft preps Windows Fall

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright May 15, 2017
Announcements at Build17 around Windows 10 Fall Creators edition show that Windows now takes second place to Azure and AI in the Microsoft firmament

Windows Story Remix bend-reality 370px via Microsoft
Microsoft Windows was aptly named when it first came to prominence more than 25 years ago. Those square frames on the PC's screen were the gateway through which people accessed the capabilities of each separate application and moved between them.

But today, there are many more ways to access capabilities than via the screen and keyboard of a Windows PC. The most prevalent today is via a smartphone, a vanishing minority of which run Windows. The emergence of intelligent agents that we can converse with via voice or messaging foreshadows how most of us will interact in the future — not even aware of the underlying application.

So this year's Build, Microsoft's annual developer conference, was something of a swansong for Windows, even as the latest version passes a half-billion installs. Sure, the fittingly named (for a product facing decline) Windows 10 Fall Creators edition extends the capabilities of the operating system even further. But Build17 was about so much more than just Windows, that most of the Windows announcements were reserved for the day two keynote — and they included extended support for the likes of Microsoft Graph on Apple iOS and Google's Android mobile platforms, as well as bringing Apple's iTunes to the Windows store. Build confirmed — if anyone still needed persuading — that the cloud, and more specifically Azure, has superseded Windows at the center of Microsoft's universe today, with AI its core.

Towards headless applications

One of the most telling moments, therefore, came when Harry Shum, Executive Vice President, Microsoft AI and Research Group, finished his day one keynote presentation with a demonstration of smart assistant technology from Tact, a startup that Microsoft recently invested in.

Tact is an example of the emerging AI-powered trend towards 'headless' applications that allow users to access functionality without having to visit each separate application — thus bypassing the precise function that once made the Windows graphical user interface so dominant. It's also interesting to note that Tact started out working with Salesforce and was also seen demonstrating its technology at Oracle's recent customer experience show. Tact's founder Chuck Ganapathi previously worked at Siebel and Salesforce.

The Microsoft demonstration showed how Tact connects into the Microsoft Graph API and other services such as LinkedIn and Dynamics 365 to bring information and suggestions to a user via the Cortana voice or messaging interface. So for example it can query the Microsoft Graph to automatically find previous interactions with a contact and even perform sentiment analysis or identify them in LinkedIn. Shum concludes:

AI is going to disrupt every single business app, whether an industry vertical like banking, retail, or healthcare; or a horizontal business process like sales, marketing or customer support.

Multi-platform UX

The Graph API will be an important weapon for Microsoft during this disruption in ensuring that its various applications and platforms remain sticky — an objective that company founder Bill Gates astutely recommended early on in its development.

Increasingly the user experience as this disruption takes place will spread across multiple different platforms, with Windows just one among many. In his day two keynote, Terry Myerson, Executive Vice President, Windows and Devices Group emphasized new features in the forthcoming Windows 10 Fall Creators release that will allow users to move from one device to another and continue whatever they were doing without skipping a beat — across Windows, iOS, Android and AI interfaces. This even includes the ability to copy and paste clipboard contents from one device to another. An update to OneDrive will make files available on demand without having to download them in advance.

A feature called Timeline lets users see what they were doing across devices and jump back to continue any chosen activity, and connects into Office Graph. This will be made available to third-party application developers using a new connectivity toolkit called Project Rome.

None of this means that Windows becomes redundant — Myerson showed off a new application called Windows Story Remix (see feature pic) which uses all of these capabilities to craft stories using rich media and mixed reality. But it does confirm a different path for the platform than its heyday.

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