Nadella opens Build 2018 with cross-platform push

Microsoft’s developer conference has kicked off with a renewed focus on making Microsoft products and services work well with other offerings

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has described how sharing user data through Microsoft 365, the company’s Office, Windows and enterprise mobility product, would enable new “multi-sense” applications to be developed.

Openness and cross-platform interoperability were the primary focus areas in Nadella’s opening remarks at the conference.

Opening the Build 2018 developer conference, Nadella said: “Twelve months after I started talking about the intelligent edge, it is now everywhere. Developers are pushing platform advances.”

Nadella said computers were being embedded everywhere. “The era of the intelligent cloud and intelligent edge is upon us. These advancements create incredible developer opportunity, and also come with a responsibility to ensure the technology we build is trusted and benefits all,” he said.

During his keynote, Nadella announced a speech software developer kit (SDK) and a reference architecture micro-array speaker built by Roobo, through which developers could test their code.

Cross-platform intelligence

Nadella also talked about cross-platform intelligent digital assistants, saying he expects every company will build branded agents. “It is not sufficient to build skills for others’ agents. You need your own agents and you need to be able to brand them,” he said.

Nadella said Microsoft’s goal was to help developers build intelligent agents that are able to converse across multiple digital personal assistants. “You want to have max reach as a developer – you should be able to publish in Cortana, Skype or Facebook and have your conversational user interface show up.”

Microsoft’s ambition is to separate the logic that goes into the intelligence of an intelligent agent from where it runs and where it is deployed to enable developers to create agents that can work on any device.

For instance, he said Microsoft had begun work on Amazon Alexa integration. “Cortana can converse with other digital assistants. Users do not want to be bound to a single walled garden.”

For developers, Nadella said the intelligent agents they develop can be re-used across multiple personal digital assistants, enabling the agent to target the maximum number of users. “We have worked with Amazon to bring Alexa and Amazon together,” he said.

However, in the demonstration given at Build 2018, the user needed to ask Alexa to invoke Cortana to check an Outlook calendar. Similarly, when using Cortana, the user had to ask Alexa to run a requested task, such as switching on a smart light.

As Computer Weekly has previously reported, creating a seamless voice-based user interface can be difficult, as people prefer natural language queries over having to speak a series of commands in the right order, which is regarded as non-intuitive.

Multi-device operating system

Microsoft Office 365 is the company’s big push to deliver a platform that is more than an operating system for PC devices.

“We need to up-level our concept of an operating system,” said Nadella, describing how desktop applications could be modernised with ink for writing, speech, far-field and near-field communications. In fact, later this year, smart speaker technology will begin appearing in new PCs, offering near-field and far-field voice assistance, according to Nadella.

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He said that by using its graph application programming interfaces, Microsoft will be extending Windows to enable data from a PC to be shared with a phone and vice versa, treating the phone as a second screen for the PC. “These are definitions of multi-device, multi-sense experiences,” said Nadella.

In a demo of the technology, Microsoft showed how a dedicated conference room PC running Microsoft Teams, powered by its Cortana intelligent agent and a camera, could listen in on an office meeting, identify participants and interactively transcribe the meeting, as well as provide documents and book follow-up meetings based on the conversation.

Extending the concept of workplace productivity beyond knowledge workers, Nadella said there was a big opportunity in so-called first-line workers, potentially two billion people globally,

He said Microsoft would be launching a set of software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications as part of Microsoft 365 for HoloLens to support four key areas: remote assistance, space planning, training and development, and product-focused collaboration.

The idea is to encourage industry and application-specific uses for HoloLens, where the three-dimensional model presented to the user in the 3D glasses could be used to augment real pieces of equipment or a factory floor. For instance, placement of a new machine in a factory could be rendered in 3D on HoloLens, allowing the user to visualise how the 3D image of the new equipment sits in the real factory.

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