(Disclosure: The mentioned companies are clients of the author.)
Microsoft Build is my favorite Microsoft conference because it usually introduces me to fun new things to try. Due to the current environment this show needs to be virtual but frustrating because it is difficult to check some new things from a distance. Interestingly, much of what Microsoft is announcing in Build can fix this in future events as it introduces the ability of its tools to work much more collaboratively than previously possible.
Here’s how Microsoft is pushing the productivity envelope this week.
How Microsoft won
I have worked and covered Microsoft since 1970. When it was a new company, it hired me; I made one of those decisions that I regretted and went to work for my father instead. It’s amazing how Microsoft has changed over the decades. In the early years, it was closed, owned and known for telling partners and customers what was going to happen as opposed to listening to what they wanted.
Like the old Microsoft of today’s Microsoft name. Now, it considers open-source advocacy and interoperability as a competitive edge. As a Microsoft customer, a multinational client, noted: they listen and collaborate today. In fact, this customer says that it is unique at the level of business enterprise and in sharp contrast with the competitors of Microsoft. Microsoft now wants to work with its partners and customers, while competitors hand over a catalog of products.
This last technology has been a historical problem. Technology companies know that consumers are not moving on current versions of products but that it is a customer’s problem, not a seller’s problem. On the contrary, Microsoft believes that it is to solve its problems, and it has demonstrated that recognition in the build.
A new class of hardware
One of the biggest announcements of the build was Project Voltaire. Although Microsoft has clearly supported Windows on ARM, support was not needed in the market until this year. Problem: Windows and related apps designed to implement X86 ARM had to run an X86 emulator (which compromised the available functionality). Note that ARM is a highly efficient architecture with little performance headroom.
Project Voltaire is expected to be the first four-processor PC to have not only more traditional CPUs and GPU processors, but also an NPU and an ACU (the last term is because Microsoft didn’t come up with another abbreviation). An NPU is a neural processing unit that focuses on AI loads that promise to deliver much more AI performance at a much lower power consumption than any CPU or GPU can deliver. The ACU is an Azure Compute Unit – the first major step in creating a hybrid model for the PC where loads are transferred smoothly between the PC and the cloud as needed.
In addition, Project Voltaire is a focused workstation, the first from Microsoft. This somewhat reflects what Nvidia is doing to build AI, but with much less expensive hardware and more use of cloud resources.
Finally, Project Volterra will eventually provide a hardware workstation platform that potentially fills the surface line (which lacks a real workstation) with a focus on creating ARM-native software that ultimately allows ARM to compete to its full potential. While Qualcomm is undoubtedly happy about it – and for good reason – AMD and Intel are concerned about the move.
Among the OEMs, Lenovo will probably come up with the first branded Volterra option. Lenovo has been the most aggressive OEM in terms of support for Microsoft announcements.
Collaboration and team
The entire build event focused on deeper integration of teams’ capabilities into Microsoft’s development tools, including GitHub, and collaboration with the emergence of an AI tool called GitHub Copilot. Microsoft claims that it estimates the code needed to complete a project and that it automatically reduces the coding time by about 30%. In a very practical way, this is a collaboration with AI on a scale we have not seen before.
Not only has collaboration with AI improved (I find this idea interesting), but it has become significantly stronger for people who work remotely.
Teams experience reasonably better avatars than those displayed by Facebook, and this will allow for a level of app interaction during meetings that is unprecedented. Remote collaborators will be able to interact with shared tools so that a team can do more than just suggest and collectively create or modify something more efficiently. (An interesting example was a meeting where remote participants interacted using tools like Microsoft Mesh, which is much more than what has been possible so far.)
With Mesh, Microsoft has added drop-in space so that users can communicate seamlessly, just like you can catch someone’s eye while walking down the hall in the office. This focus on relationship building and building new skills has come up again and again. You don’t even need a VR headset, but the experience will be better if you have it.
Microsoft looks ahead
In the build-up, Microsoft has finally become serious about deepening its collaboration capabilities, which adds more advantages than other types of Microsoft companies (both outside the technology market and beyond). That advantage: the company shuts down the tools it makes. This makes Microsoft its own most trusted and influential customer and ensures that industry issues, such as the need to support remote staff and create better ARM-native code, are driven by internal needs.
With this enhanced collaboration between Microsoft employees, partners and customers, these immersive tools will give Microsoft a competitive advantage that will be difficult for others to overcome. It’s like watching CEO Satya Nadella’s keynote address and learning more about Project Voltaire.
One of the historic concerns with Microsoft is embracing changes that the market does not want and often rejects. This year’s build introduces a very different Microsoft, because this year’s offers are the solution that customers are shouting and will probably accept. Again, Microsoft has proven that it can aggressively move into the future – and that future will be more collaborative, more remote, and much more advanced by AI than ever before.
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