Microsoft’s AI vision enhanced at BUILD as Nadella bangs developer empowerment drum

Day one of BUILD, Microsoft’s developer conference, saw a variety of announcements and discussion around Azure, artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT), as well as something of a shift in strategy.

First, the numbers. Satya Nadella, Microsoft CEO, announced yesterday that Windows had reached 500 million Windows 10 monthly active devices, up from 400 million devices in September, while also stressing the 12 million organisational entities in Azure Active Directory and the 100 million monthly active users (MAUs) of Office 365. “This is the most valuable set of users in the core of the enterprise using these tools every day,” he said. “The opportunity that you all have around Microsoft platforms is pretty stunning and amazing."

This was one in a variety of sound bites aimed at defining how developers are at the heart of this turning point in technology, of which DeveloperTech is obliged to repeat at least some. “Whether it’s precision medicine, or precision agriculture, whether it’s digital media or the industrial Internet, the opportunity for us as developers to have a broad, deep impact on all parts of society, and all parts of the economy, has never been greater,” said Nadella.

Nadella also discussed the ‘practical design choices’ developers can make to ‘help enshrine our timeless values’; empowering people with technology, using technology to bring more empowerment to more people, and building trust in technology. “I think it starts with us taking accountability,” said Nadella, “taking accountability for the algorithms we create, the experiences we create, and ensuring there is more trust in technology with each day.”

With the preamble out of the way, onto the announcements. First up was a preview of Azure IoT Edge, a cross-platform runtime which runs on both Windows and Linux, and enables cloud functionality to be exported, run and managed directly on IoT devices remotely. This played in to the slight shift in strategy, from cloud being the end goal to an enabler. As industry analyst Jan Dawson put it, “the shift here is away from thinking of cloud as centralised to thinking about it as distributed including edge.” He described the change as “subtle but really important.”

Everyone present knew AI would have a role to play in some capacity, and as Harry Shum, EVP of Microsoft’s AI and research group puts it, the company wants to bring AI to everyone, from developers to data scientists to students.

Microsoft now has 29 services which enable developers to put either custom intelligence or off the shelf capabilities into their apps and bots, including vision, speech, language, knowledge, and search. ‘Conversational AI’, as Shum puts it, is a modification from the ‘conversation as a platform’ theory espoused by Nadella last year. “The improvements we are making in understanding speech and language are driving a paradigm shift – moving away from a world where we’ve had to understand computers to one where computers understand humans,” wrote Shum.

Office 365, with that huge MAU base as mentioned earlier, got a few mentions. Microsoft revealed new APIs for Microsoft Graph, which gives developers access to Office 365 data and intelligence, including SharePoint and Planner. Developers can also generally publish for Microsoft Teams, as well as adding new capabilities to Teams apps.

Other announcements appeared on the database side, or as Microsoft put it, ‘meeting developers where they are’. The primary news here was the launch of Azure Cosmos DB, which as the company puts it is “built from the ground up to power planet-scale cloud services and data-intensive applications – from IoT to AI to mobile – with incredible performance, fault tolerance and support for every type of data.” New MySQL and PostgreSQL managed services joining Azure SQL Database were also announced, as well as general availability of Visual Studio 2017 for Mac.

Check out the full list of announcements here, while watch the second day’s keynotes here (start time 0830 PT/1630 BST).

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