Satya Nadella launches Microsoft Ignite

Satya Nadella launches Microsoft Ignite

Microsoft Ignite is massive. Over 23,000 people have come together in Chicago to attend the technical event that replaces conferences such as TechEd, Microsoft Exchange Conference (MEC), and the SharePoint Conference as the once-a-year update for technology professionals. I guess I must be in that category, which is why I ended up at the opening keynote headlined by CEO Satya Nadella this morning. The room was massive (apparently it took two full days to put out all the chairs) and was backed up by a pretty large overflow room that was also full.

Like the keynotes organized by all major technology companies, Microsoft keynotes are carefully choreographed. They have a theme. The theme is supported by a number of messages and demos, and the speakers are coached to deliver the messages. An experienced speaker like Nadella doesn't need much help to get the messages across, but you can be sure that he was well coached before coming on stage.

The keynote is therefore almost like a ritual event, a gathering of the faithful to hear the latest messages from the Oracle of Redmond. It didn't exhibit quite the frenzy that some Steve Ballmer keynotes have in the past, but there was a fair amount of passion in the room. Well, as much as you can detect in a massive hall filled with people, many of whom divided their attention between the stage (or one of the large screens) and their own device.

This keynote was a difficult one for Microsoft to target a single tailored message. Whereas last year the keynotes at conferences such as TechEd, MEC, and the SharePoint Conference could be tailored to delight and excite the specific audiences who attended those events, Ignite embraces a much broader church - or a collection of cults (in the nicest possible sense of the word), each of which wants to know about what Microsoft is doing for them. Last week the Build crowd (developers) got lots of news about Visual Studio, HoloLens, Docker, cross-platform development, universal apps, and Azure to keep them happy. For the Ignite crowd Microsoft concentrated on empowering IT professionals.

In his opening comments, Nadella said that the cloud enables mobility of experience across all devices – critical glue to make sure that data is available at all times. It’s funny to measure this aspiration against the poor Wi-Fi service provided in the hall, which meant that I was detached from the cloud during the keynote. It certainly wasn’t the friction-free mobile experience referred to by Nadella, but I guess Microsoft wanted me to concentrate on the words of wisdom.

In defining Microsoft strategy, Nadella offered three sections:

Create more personal computing – through applications that are mobile, support natural interactions – including speech and touch, using a trusted platform to protect personal data, and exploiting innovative hardware – new categories like Surface Hub.

Deliver an Intelligent cloud back end – Microsoft’s cloud technology is designed to enable enterprise mobility, drive application innovation, to unlock insights from data and to transform the data center by merging public and private clouds. Among the products mentioned were Windows Server 2016 preview and System Center 2016, SQL Server 2016 (called the “biggest breakthrough in SQL technology that you have ever seen”, with an "infinite" database stretched from on-premises database though Azure), Azure Stack, Operations Management Suite, and Advanced Threat Analytics.

Reinvent productivity and business processes – Not only a continued focus on development of standard tools like Outlook and OneNote across multiple devices but also the creation of new tools like Sway, and Cortana.

Nadella finished with a conversation with Real Madrid C.F. president José Ángel Sánchez about the football club's creation of a communication hub to connect with 450 million fans. It was kind of interesting to see a European legend like Real Madrid feature in this way and provided a segue to a series of speakers to expand on the points made by the CEO.

Up first, Joe Belfiore spoke about the balance of familiarity with new features in Windows 10 to make Windows 7 users happy. One interesting fact revealed was that according to telemetry gathered by Microsoft, only %10 of Windows users are familiar with ALT-TAB to move between Windows. I can’t imagine how the other 90% navigate Windows without ALT-TAB, but there you are.

Moving on, Belfiore showed how Cortana can be used to contribute to business processes with a number of questions that were answered from Power BI data about Ignite attendees. Apart from saying that the data was hosted on Azure, we had no technical information about the size or complexity of the data but as in all good demos the responses were fast and accurate. Assuming Cortana works as well in production, this should be a powerful way to query data without having to get down and dirty with Excel pivot tables.

In other demos, Belfiore hyped high performance of Edge browser and annotation, note-taking, and language translation functionality available through reading mode, but his most popular demo was showing how well a Windows 10 Phone device works when connected to a large screen, mouse, and keyboard. Second to that was the speed at which biometric logins work with Microsoft Passport. He concluded his session of the keyboard by showing how Windows 10 can automatically apply encryption to protect Office documents, presumably through Azure Active Directory Rights Management. The point here is that things (like security) work better when they are a natural part of computing.

In terms of laughs from the audience, Gurdeep Singh Pall was the most entertaining speaker when discussing the challenges of creating software to enable productivity in the modern workforce. He focused on Office 365 Groups as a key point of integration for technology across Office 365. He appealed to the audience to download and install the new Office 2016 Preview to experience some of the new features. The preview has been available to developers and insiders for a while. I've been running it and all of the applications that I use (Outlook, PowerPoint, Word, Excel, and OneNote) are in good shape. My favorite piece of new functionality is the inclusion of Office 365 Groups in Outlook 2016. I'm sure you will have your own points to test in the new versions.

Julia White came on stage to show how some of the work being done inside Office 365 will help companies to create a modern workplace. She started with Office Delve to show how it brings together information from different sources within an organization such as Salesforce (also shown in the Build keynote from last week) and the Office 365 Video Portal (charmingly referred to as “YouTube for the Enterprise”).

A new connection between Delve and Office 365 groups was explored to show how knowledge within a company could be exploited, in this case, the need to find particular skills inside a company. A search led to a group for user interface specialists where a suitable candidate was located. All of this was interesting, but what was much more startling in a sense was the revelation of organization analytics surfaced through Delve in the form of a personal dashboard.

In a sense, this shouldn’t have been surprising because it is no secret that Delve uses the Office Graph as its data source and the Office Graph database is the central collection point for signals gathered through the interactions between users and Office 365 applications. It’s therefore absolutely reasonable to assume that this data can be analyzed to understand the work that an individual does and how they spend their time. Reasonable in IT terms, but I foresee some work unions and privacy advocates in countries like Germany and France who will be upset at the notion that this data can be surfaced so easily. Of course, Delve keeps this data private to the user, but the sheer fact that the analysis is being done could raise some concerns that management would seek to use the Office Graph for much the same purpose except on an organizational level.

Co-authoring has been supported with the Office Online apps for a while now. Julia announced that the same capability will be available in the Office 2016 applications. She also announced that Office Sway is going to be included in the Office 365 business and personal plans to provide users with another way to communicate (and possibly replace some of the tons of PowerPoint decks generated annually).

Julia finished with a demo of the Surface Hub showing how the whiteboard of the future will work was impressive, but left a nagging doubt of how long it will take many companies to transform their IT to be able to achieve the kind of integrated work shown. Of course, Microsoft has a simple answer: move to Office 365 and the modern workplace becomes so much easier to achieve. Not quite “enabled with a click” as claimed by Gurdeep, but certainly much easier.

Brad Anderson was his normal self when talking about device management. Apart from hitting a slight glitch when showing a new version of the Outlook for iOS app that supports data loss protection by restricting the ability to cut and paste information into email, he did a good job to demonstrate how apps can be restricted to control corporate information better, including how to prohibit sharing of data between work applications like Word and personal applications like Twitter.

Another demo featured Rights Management and the protection that can be assigned to documents circulated via email. This capability has been available for some time. What’s different is a new capability in Azure Active Directory Rights Management that went into general availability today to allow the owner of documents to track the access attempts to their content, including unsuccessful attempts, and to pinpoint the location of where these attempts were made. Brad also showed some of the new reports available for Azure Active Directory to help administrators understand how user identities might be compromised, including the “impossible travel” report to identify attempts to log onto accounts from widely separated places in quick succession.

Brad then moved on to Microsoft Advanced Threat Analytics, which went into general preview today. This product uses information gathered from device accesses to identify and interpret suspicious patterns such as attacks emanating from specific devices, which can then lead administrators to understand where user accounts have been compromised and used as the basis of attacks. The good news is that Advanced Threat Analytics is available for on-premises use.

Terry Myerson spoke about the need to keep software updated on systems. He pointed out that 858 million Windows consumer users receive updates every Patch Tuesday and took a swing at Google, saying that Google ships “a big pile of code” and takes no further responsibility. Consumers will receive Windows as a Service to get a steady stream of innovations monthly, but not on a single day of the month. They’ll use the same kind of distribution rings proven by the Windows Insider program to allow users to decide how quickly they receive updates.

Terry announced Windows Update for Business, where IT can control distribution rings, maintenance windows, and how the new service should be integrated with existing tools like SCCM or EMS. He spoke about the low-bandwidth capabilities to ensure that even PCs in remote sites can be maintained. The new Windows Update for Business service will be free for all Windows 10 Pro and Windows 10 Enterprise devices. Clearly the new service will take IT time to figure out how to use it inside businesses, but it seems like this will help keep PCs running up-to-date code in a reasonably flexible manner.

Brad Anderson then came back on stage to finish out the keynote by discussing some of the changes being made in Azure, SQL 2016, Windows Server 2016, and System Center 2016. Much of this content, such as the new Nano server, will be covered in detail later on in the week. Then finally we had some information about the new Azure Stack, a way to blend Azure processing capabilities into on-premises datacenters that seems pretty interesting.

Overall, the first Ignite keynote was an exhausting and lengthy experience that left the mind befuddled with so much information. It will take time to fully digest the content and separate out the points that are important to a specific company and to integrate the mass of information that Microsoft will release to flesh out some of the concepts in other sessions at Ignite and later on in blogs and articles. 

I'm exhausted already and Ignite is only a half-day old. It could be a tough week.


Follow Tony @12Knocksinna

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