Microsoft’s (MSFT) second developer conference of the year is a little different than the first one, but is still jam-packed with announcements.
Whereas the software giant’s Build conference, which was held in early May this year, caters to Microsoft developers in general, its Ignite conference, which kicked off on Monday in Orlando, is more focused on enterprise developers and IT pros.
Much like Build, not to mention recent Amazon.com (AMZN) and Alphabet/Google (GOOGL) developer conferences, AI-related features and services are getting a lot of attention at Ignite. And broadly speaking, Microsoft, which has made huge strides over the last five years at getting product teams that hadn’t been playing nice with each other to do so, is doing a good job of showing how it can use different parts of its empire to enhance offerings that compete against the likes of Amazon, Google, Slack and VMware (VMW) .
Here’s a run-down of notable announcements made thus far at Ignite, and who they take aim at:
1. Unified Search for Windows and Office
Getting a lot of press: Microsoft is rolling out a new integrated search feature for Windows and Office that combines Bing search with things like contacts, files and app-specific commands. “We think this is one of the most profound things we’ve done in a while,” says Office VP Jeff Taper.
A search bar providing access to the feature will appear at the top of Office apps. The move puts Microsoft on a little better footing relative to Google’s G Suite, whose integrated search function has long been a selling point.
2. Windows Virtual Desktop
For a long time, Citrix Systems (CTXS) , VMware and others have done good business selling virtual desktop solutions that allow office workers to access a Windows desktop environment remotely via thin clients, mobile devices or just a regular PC. And a few years ago, Amazon Web Services (AWS) joined the fray via its cloud-based WorkSpaces service.
Now, Microsoft is jumping in by launching Windows Virtual Desktop, a cloud-based service that will run on Azure. Outside of the cloud infrastructure resources it uses, Microsoft says Virtual Desktop can be deployed for free by businesses signed up for certain types of Windows or Microsoft 365 enterprise plans. The company talks up its efforts to “optimize” the service for the ProPlus version of Office 365.
3. The Open Data Initiative
Also getting a fair amount of attention: Microsoft is teaming with Adobe (ADBE) and SAP (SAP) — two companies it already has Azure partnerships with — to launch the Open Data Initiative (ODI). The effort aims to let data produced by the business apps of ODI members to be pooled by customers, including for AI/machine learning and analytics projects.
Tech analyst Patrick Moorhead, who called the ODI announcement Monday’s most significant Ignite news, considers Salesforce.com (CRM) (a rival of all three initial ODI members) to be the firm “most negatively impacted” by the initiative. Oracle (ORCL) might also be in the crosshairs if it chooses not to join.
4. New AI and LinkedIn-Related Office Features
Clippy 2.0, or something much better? Microsoft Ideas, a new feature for Office apps, uses machine learning to provide users with tips and suggestions as they use Office apps. The feature is promised to become more effective as it learns more about a user’s Office behavior.
Microsoft is also launching an image-recognition feature for Excel that automatically converts a photo of a data table into an Excel file. And it’s adding to its ongoing efforts to integrate LinkedIn with Office by letting Outlook users co-author Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents with LinkedIn contacts.
5. New Database Features
Less than a year after launching SQL Server 2017, an update to its database platform that brought support for Linux and machine learning services, Microsoft has released a public preview for SQL Server 2019. Stronger big data/analytics support, courtesy of support for the Hadoop Distributed File System (HDFS) and Apache Spark analytics engine, is a major selling point.
Microsoft has also unveiled new features for its innovative Cosmos DB database service, which can be globally distributed across its Azure data centers. Consider this one more thing for Oracle to worry about.
6. New AI-Based Azure Services
Microsoft, Amazon and Google have all been aggressively rolling out new AI-related developer offerings for their cloud platforms. Microsoft unveiled its latest moves on this cloud battlefront on Monday.
Cortana Skills Kit for Enterprise leverages Azure services in fields such as natural language-processing, speech analysis and chatbot development to help enterprise developers build new assistant services. Examples shown off by Microsoft included a skill for filing a ticket with a company’s IT help desk, and one that lets employees use a personal assistant to schedule an office cleaning.
Microsoft also joined Google in launching cloud services that let developers automatically build AI models without the need for a human data scientist. And it showed off Azure Data Box Edge, a server/storage appliance which comes with a programmable chip (FPGA) meant to help Azure users locally run machine learning algorithms.