Microsoft soups up Dynamics 365 with AI and HoloLens add-ons

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright September 18, 2018
Microsoft soups up its Dynamics 365 business applications with packaged AI for sales, service and marketing, plus HoloLens mixed reality apps

Humanoid robots working with headset and notebook © Phonlamai Photo - shutterstock
If you don't believe AI is becoming mainstream, then how about this? Microsoft is bringing AI capabilities directly into Dynamics 365, its cloud-based ERP and CRM application suite. In the run-up to next week's Ignite and Envision conferences, it's also extending its business applications with Mixed Reality (MR) capabilities on HoloLens. The announcements signal Microsoft's increasing confidence in its competitive fightback against Salesforce, which today celebrates the two-year anniversary of the launch of its own Einstein AI tools.

A trio of AI applications

Microsoft yesterday announced a trio of AI applications that will be available in public preview as the next release of Dynamics 365 starts rolling out in October. These productized AI capabilities have come out of earlier custom projects that Microsoft has done with selected customers such as HP and Macy's. But rather than requiring complex custom development, these new capabilities are designed for point-and-click setup and deployment by business users, or for easy customization and extension by developers. As Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella explains in a video recorded for yesterday's announcement:

If we can democratize the use of AI tools, any company can harness the power of AI.

The three new tools are:

  • Dynamics 365 AI for Sales. Already announced in July as part of the 100-odd new features slated for the October release, this applies machine intelligence to various aspects of the sales process, such as prioritizing promising deals, analyzing sales performance and pipelines, or coaching salespeople to improve their performance.
  • Dynamics 365 AI for Customer Service. This capability applies AI and natural language understanding to enable virtual agents, or to assist human agents in helping customers get the answers or actions they need to resolve issues.
  • Dynamics 365 AI for Market Insights. Bringing AI to marketing, social media and market research helps speed up analysis and respond faster to evolving conversations and trends.

Mixed Reality on HoloLens

The Mixed Reality announcements bring HoloLens — Microsoft's virtual reality headset — into the industrial environment, where it will have a role in field service, inspection and site surveys. The technology allows a HoloLens headset wearer to augment what they're actually seeing with superimposed virtual images and information. Oil company Chevron is an early user, with 100 HoloLens already deployed in the field, and plans in the works for several thousand more. The two new capabilities being introduced are:

  • Dynamics 365 Remote Assist. This allows a field technician wearing the HoloLens headset to work collaboratively with a colleague viewing from elsewhere, who can superimpose guidance on the image so that it is visible to the engineer. Chevron says it is already using this capability to save travel time and risk by having regular inspections of a facility in Singapore done from Houston.
  • Dynamics 365 Layout. This allows wearers to plan the position of equipment or other assets in a specific location by superimposing digital images. It has applications in sales as well as facilities management and operational management.

Where Common Data Service comes in

Both the AI and MR capabilities take advantage of an important new layer in the Dynamics 365 application architecture called Common Data Service. When Microsoft re-architected its CRM and ERP business applications for the cloud in Dynamics 365, a key part of that work was to converge the underlying data model to be able to get at the data in a more consistent way, rather than having separate datasets for front-office and back-ofice. Microsoft has since extended this Common Data Service to also bring in data from Office, LinkedIn, and third-party applications.

This marks a big change from the past says Alysa Taylor, Corporate Vice President, Business Applications & Industry:

Many people, when they talked about CRM or ERP of old, they referred to them as systems of oppression. They captured data, but they didn't provide any value back to the end user. What that end user really needs is a system of empowerment, not oppression ...

You have to be able to unify the data so that you can quickly and easily adopt those applications, so that they can talk to one another and they're interchangeable. And so we created something called the Common Data Service.

The Common Data Service is a key enabler for applying AI to that data, because it unlocks "your ability to reason over it," she explains.

My take

To some extent, this is just Microsoft playing AI catch-up to Salesforce, which was showing off similar capabilities a year or more ago. But it's a serious move too, based on the undoubtedly powerful platform of AzureML and founded on practical work Microsoft has already been doing with some of its largest customers.

The HoloLens announcements are hardly breaking new ground either, but again these applications are well thought through, and help demonstrate that HoloLens is not just a leisure device — it has a serious role in the industrial sphere.

One card that Microsoft might have played but has chosen not to on this occasion was to add AI into its financials offering, which would have emphasized its big differentiation against Salesforce, as offering a unified suite across CRM and ERP. Instead, it has restricted this announcement to the core CRM applications of sales, service and marketing. To some extent, this is territory where AI is already mainstream and we're getting to the point where this kind of AI capability is table-stakes for any vendor that wants to be taken seriously.

I'm also intrigued to hear about the Common Data Service, which suggests to me that Microsoft has taken a big step along the path to creating a modern connected digital enterprise architecture for its business applications. That bodes well for future iterations of the product set.

All in all then, this will keep Microsoft loyalists happy while firing a shot across the bows of Salesforce, who will not be happy to see its rival stealing attention on the two-year anniversary of its own first steps into AI.

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