Microsoft Ignite - AI ambitions from Nadella as Adobe becomes this week's BFF

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan September 26, 2016
Adobe is Microsoft's latest BFF with the latter selecting the former's Marketing Cloud as its preferred marketing offering. But for Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, there are bigger visions around AI to be pitched.

Nadella and Narayen

I’ve taken to referring to the relationship between Microsoft and Salesforce as being one of ‘friends with benefits’ of late, rather than the BFFs it was last year. But following day one of the Microsoft Ignite conference yesterday, I’m wondering if that’s looking less applicable as Microsoft engaged in a public love-in with Adobe over its marketing cloud offering.

Of course, this can be attributed to yet another example of that most abused of terms, co-opetition, but what’s interesting is that Microsoft has chosen Adobe’s Marketing Cloud as its preferred marketing solution for Dynamics 365 Enterprise edition customers. The data models used by Dynamics 365 and Marketing Cloud will be integrated to combine Dynamics 365's sales features with Adobe's marketing capabilities.

For its part, Adobe will now be using Micrsoft’s Azure platform for its Marketing Cloud, Document Cloud, and Creative Cloud services.

The announcement of the new love-in was made by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and his Adobe counterpart Shantanu Narayen, with the former flagging up the Marketing Cloud preferment as “a massive, massive milestone”. For his part, Narayen stated:

As we thought about how we needed to evolve all of our cloud, and we thought about the next phase of innovation for this, I think it was critical to us that we had to think about things like global scale and what were we doing with global scale, or trust and compliance, but perhaps most important, machine intelligence and intelligence.

SaaS has completely disrupted how enterprises are thinking about software. But as it relates to the entire customer journey end-to-end and building this connected enterprise, you know, we think it’s absolutely critical that we provide this integration that we can between sales and marketing and visualization.

So from our point of view as we think about what [Microsoft has] done with Dynamics 365 and the intelligent business workflows that you’re talking about and how you made it modular so we can integrate that within the Marketing Cloud, we just think that there’s an opportunity for out-of-the-box provide integration for all of our joint customers in terms of being able to have one unified and integrated sales and marketing service.

He added that customers such as Virgin Atlantic and Volkswagen are demanding this level of ready-made integration:

When we talk about this customer journey, understanding the definition of how we jointly look at customers and lifetime value and promotions and campaigns, if we can standardize on the semantic data model between our respective offerings, that again I think enables people to out-of-the-box start to use these solutions to solve their business problems and the use cases that they have.

Democratizing AI

Later in the conference, Nadella turned his attention to the topic du jour - AI. With Oracle staking its claim to this space last week at OpenWorld and Salesforce set to focus Dreamforce next week on its Einstein offering, it was Microsoft’s turn to pitch its own AI play, with Nadella stating that his firm’s objective was “democratizing AI”.

That’s a remarkably similar pitch to the one alluded to by Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff recently when he stated:

I think when you see Einstein, you will see that it is on par and capable to any other AI platform that you have seen like [IBM’s] Watson and others. But with Einstein it has these capabilities like non-programmatic capabilities as well as programmatic capabilities that is built into our applications as well as being independent.

Nadella also alluded to Watson, still best known for its role as a contestant on Jeopardy, when he said:

We are not pursuing AI to beat humans at games. We are pursuing AI so that we can empower every person and every institution that people build with tools of AI, so that they can go on to solve the most pressing problems of our society and our economy. That’s the pursuit.

He talked about AI being the “intersection” of the firm’s overall ambitions in a mobile-first, cloud-first world and that AI is about:

the ability to reason over large amounts of data and convert that into intelligence. That intelligence shows up as handwriting recognition on Windows 10, or the Windows Hello feature, the ability to face recognize you, or even magical new devices like the holographic computer, where you have the ability to digitally reconstruct and recognize everything that you see and then to superimpose objects in that world. How we infuse every application, Cortana, Office 365, Dynamics 365 with intelligence. And the building blocks that constitute intelligence that are available as developer services in Azure. That’s what we’re doing. That’s the approach we are taking.

There are four pillars to that approach, he added - agents, applications, services, and infrastructure. For agents, think Cortana, now positioned as:

the new organizing layer. It’s what helps mediate the human computer interaction, your ability to get to applications and information.

This new category of the personal digital assistant is a run time, a new interface. It can take text input, it can take speech input, it knows you deeply. It knows your context, your family, your work. It knows the world. It is unbounded. In other words, it’s about you, it’s not about any one device. It goes wherever you go. It’s available on any phone, iOS, Android, Windows, doesn’t matter. It is available across all of the applications that you will use in your life.

Of particular note, given the imminence of Dreamforce, Nadella drilled down into his vision for AI in relation to CRM, noting that most sales activity currently happens outside of a CRM system:

The goal of intelligence is to be able to reason about your sales data model, not inside just your CRM system, but outside. So we are building the relationship assistant, that’s going to ship in November as part of Dynamics CRM, to truly transform our CRM application from the inside out. So when you login to a CRM system what you’re going to see are these cards, these cards that allow you to take action inside the system based on activity that is happening outside.

For example, it’ll know because of its ability to crawl the web about changes that are happening with your customers, changes that are happening on LinkedIn on one of your prospects job title. Now you can go change the information in context of things that are happening on the outside. So the web graph informs your CRM actions.

This is, he claimed a “complete revamp” of how to think about a CRM sales module. The same thing can happen with customer service, he added:

Really customer service starts with the customer contact. So at Microsoft we, today, have at a virtual assistant. This is live in US English today, and we’re going to expand this to all countries. Customers come in and interact with the agent. They ask it questions, this virtual agent answers those questions.

But, of course, it also runs out of steam and needs to escalate to a real customer service from time to time. That’s when the real magic starts….This virtual assistant, through a mechanism called reinforcement learning, is not only helping the customer service rep get better, it, itself, is getting better. So this phenomena of applying AI to customer service will get your customer service outcomes to be more efficient, your customer satisfaction to improve.

My take

It’s tempting to ponder cynically that with friends like Microsoft etc etc, but of course that’s too simplistic. While I loathe the ‘co-opetition’ cliche, it’s a market reality. So while Adobe gets to be this week’s BFF, Salesforce is the Diamond Sponsor for the Ignite conference. That said, once again I wonder just how many times Office 365 will be flagged up next week at Dreamforce?

Meanwhile, anyone still in any doubt that AI is the big thing for 2017 and beyond should be re-evaluating their position pretty damn pronto. Nadella concluded his AI pitch with a mission statement:

It’s never about our technology. It is really, to me, about your passion, your imagination, and what you can do with technologies that we create. What societal problem, what industry will you reshape? That is what we dream about, what we’re passionate about. We want to pursue democratizing AI just like we pursued information at your fingertips. But this time around, we want to bring intelligence to everything, to everywhere, and for everyone.

Next up - Einstein.

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