Microsoft takes productivity and collaboration to the top floor at Build

(Disclosure: The companies mentioned are clients of the author.)

Microsoft Build is my favorite Microsoft conference because it usually introduces me to fun new things to try. Getting this show to be virtual is necessary due to the current environment, but disappointing as it is difficult to check out some of the new releases remotely. Interestingly, much of what Microsoft announced at Build could address this issue at future events, as it increases the ability of its tools to work collaboratively far beyond what was previously possible.

Here’s how Microsoft is pushing the boundaries of productivity this week.

How Microsoft wins

I’ve worked with and covered Microsoft since the 1970s. Back when it was a new company, they recruited me; I made one of the decisions I’ve since regretted and went to work for my dad instead. It’s amazing how Microsoft has changed over the decades. In the early years, he was known for being closed, proprietary, and telling partners and customers what was going to happen instead of listening to what they wanted.

The Microsoft of today resembles the old Microsoft only in name. Today, he’s an open source advocate and treats interoperability as a competitive advantage. As one Microsoft customer, one multinational customer, pointed out: they are listening and collaborating today. In fact, this customer said it was unique at this level of business ventures and a stark contrast to Microsoft’s competitors. Microsoft now wants to work with its partners and customers, while competitors tend to distribute a catalog of products.

The latter has been a historical problem in technology. Tech companies know that customers aren’t aware of current product releases, but tend to think of it as a customer problem, not a vendor problem that needs to be solved. Microsoft, on the other hand, seems to believe this is its problem to be solved, and it presented this recognition to Build.

A new class of hardware

One of Build’s biggest announcements was Project Volterra. Although Microsoft clearly supported Windows on ARM, until this year the support was not what the market needed. The problem: Windows and related applications developed for X86 ARM implementations had to run an X86 emulator (which hindered available performance). Remember that ARM is a very efficient architecture with little performance headroom.

Project Volterra is expected to be the first quad-processor PC with not only the more traditional CPU and GPU processors, but also an NPU and ACU (the latter term is mine as Microsoft hasn’t come up with another acronym). An NPU is an AI payload-focused neural processing unit that promises to deliver far more AI performance at a far lower energy cost than any CPU or GPU can provide. The ACU is an Azure compute unit – the first major step towards creating a hybrid model for the PC where loads move seamlessly between the PC and the cloud as needed.

In addition, Project Volterra is a targeted workstation, the first from Microsoft. This mirrors a bit of what Nvidia has done for building AI, but with much cheaper hardware and greater use of cloud resources.

Ultimately, Project Volterra will finally deliver a hardware workstation platform that potentially fills in the Surface lineup (which lacked a true workstation) with a focus on building ARM-native software that would allow ARM to finally compete to its full potential. While Qualcomm is undoubtedly thrilled with this – and with good reason – AMD and Intel are concerned about this decision.

Among OEMs, Lenovo will likely be the first to offer a Volterra-branded alternative. Lenovo was the most aggressive OEM when it came to its support of Microsoft’s announcements.

Collaboration and teams

The whole Build event was all about collaboration with a much deeper integration of Teams capabilities into Microsoft’s developer tools, including GitHub and the emergence of an AI tool called GitHub Copilot. Microsoft claimed it would cut coding time by around 30% by anticipating the code needed to complete a project and automatically generating it. In a very concrete way, this is collaboration with AI on a scale that we have never seen before.

Not only has collaboration been improved with AI (this idea I find fascinating), but for people working remotely, it has also been greatly enhanced.

Teams are getting an arguably better avatar experience than presented by Facebook, and it will increasingly enable an unprecedented level of app interaction during meetings. Remote collaborators will be able to interact with shared tools so that a team can do more than just voice suggestions and collectively create or edit something more efficiently. (There was an intriguing example of a meeting where remote participants interacted using tools like Microsoft Mesh, which goes way beyond what’s been possible so far.

With Mesh, Microsoft added welcome spaces so users can interact in a casual way, much like catching someone’s eye while walking down the office hallway. This focus on building relationships and new skills came up repeatedly during Build. You don’t even need a VR headset, but if you had one, the experience would be better.

Microsoft looks to the future

At Build, Microsoft has finally taken deepening its collaboration capabilities seriously, which highlights an additional Microsoft advantage over other types of companies (both in the tech market and in out). This advantage: the company operates from the tools it creates. This makes Microsoft its most loyal and influential customer and ensures that industry issues, such as the need to support remote workers and build better ARM native code, are driven by internal needs.

With this improved collaboration between Microsoft employees, partners, and customers, these immersive tools should give Microsoft a competitive edge that is hard for others to overcome. It’s worth watching CEO Satya Nadella’s keynote and learning more about the Volterra project.

One of Microsoft’s historical concerns was its adoption of changes that the market didn’t want and often rejected. This year’s Build showcased a very different Microsoft, as this year’s offerings are solutions that customers are asking for and are likely to adopt. Once again, Microsoft has proven that it can pivot aggressively into the future — and that the future will be more collaborative, more remote, and far more AI-enhanced than ever before.

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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