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Microsoft is laying the foundation for a sci-fi future at Build 2017

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella
Image used with permission by copyright holder
Microsoft Build is a developer’s conference. Frank Shaw, Microsoft’s VP of Corporate Communications, made light of that fact at a press preview the day before Build began. “It’s a developer conference,” he warned with a dead-pan tone. “There will be coding.”

This can make Build seem arcane and, well, a bit boring – if you’re not a developer or engineer. The terminology goes over our heads. Yet that doesn’t mean it’s unimportant. In fact, Build 2017 put forth a cohesive vision for not just Microsoft’s future, but also for how everyone will interact with technology in the coming years.

Faster, smarter

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella was first to take the stage at Build, as usual, and he set the tone for what was to come. He said that Microsoft is not just “cloud-first,” as has been stated in the past. The company is pushing forward, moving to what it calls the era of “intelligent cloud” and “intelligent edge.”

Microsoft is moving on to what it calls the era of “intelligent cloud” and “intelligent edge.”

“Intelligent cloud,” is the easier of these buzz words to figure out. It refers to various techniques designed to improve data use in the cloud. The data is not just stored, but also processed, analyzed, and manipulated to power new services and applications. Microsoft’s Azure Cosmos DB, announced at Build, is the conference’s leading example. It lets developers deploy and replicate data across the globe. If an application is seeing more demand in Asia, for instance, Cosmos lets developers easily shift resources there, so users see lower latency and improved reliability.

None of this will be visible to you, the user. The app will just work. You’ve likely already come to expect that, but it’s solutions like Cosmos that make seamless performance a reality.

Living on the Edge

It’s the second buzz word, “intelligent edge,” that requires more explanation. What is the edge, anyway? Home users might first think of Microsoft’s new web browser, but in fact the two aren’t related. Microsoft is instead referring to “edge devices,” which provide an entry point into the network. An edge device can be many things; a security camera, a thermometer, even a smartphone.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

The cloud has bestowed these devices with new power. They can now be accessed from anywhere a data connection is available, providing use to people thousands of miles away. This new power comes with a problem, however. If the cloud becomes unavailable, the devices become useless.

Microsoft provided a Carnival cruise ship as one example. Normally, the ship has a constant internet connection through a satellite uplink, but a storm can disrupt that and, in turn, mess with onboard systems. Problems can even arise in normal conditions, due to the latency between the edge devices and the cloud.

Developers can push code that runs in the cloud to edge devices, so they’ll continue to work if the cloud is unavailable.

Azure IoT Edge provides a solution for that. It gives developers the capability to push code that runs in the cloud to edge devices, as well, so they’ll continue to work properly if the cloud is unavailable. When the cloud returns, they can link back up, as if an interruption had never happened. This is Microsoft’s “intelligent edge.” The devices are capable of exercising functionality on their own, even when disconnected from the cloud.

That’s a big deal. Imagine, for instance, a security system that uses facial recognition to detect who is and isn’t authorized to be in an area. A system that relies on the cloud would normally have a hard time if the internet went down. It’d stop functioning altogether. With Microsoft’s Azure IoT Edge, however, the system can continue to work with interruption.

In theory, at least. It’s worth noting that Azure IoT Edge is in preview, so it’s not ready for widespread deployment. If history’s any guide, we’ll likely hear more about it at next year’s Build, after it’s had time to prepare for release.

Coding for safety

It’s easy for Microsoft to say it has a vision for an “intelligent cloud, intelligent edge” future. The harder task is showing how buzz words translate to the real world. Fortunately, the company came prepared.

An early demo used a fictional construction site to show how the company’s combined services can interact in real time with a real workplace. The site was, of course, littered with tools, one of which was a jackhammer. Microsoft’s image recognition service recognized the tool as such, and could tell workers the tool’s location when asked through a smartphone app.

Build 2017: Workplace Safety Demonstration

That’s impressive, but also just the start. Microsoft’s services were also able to determine the orientation of the tool, which was balanced precariously against a workbench, and flag it as a safety issue. Better still, facial recognition services identified the workers at the worksite, and flagged a violation when an unauthorized person came into the demo area to pose with the jackhammer for a ridiculous selfie.

“This technology will change the world.” That quote, or something like it, eventually slips from the mouth of every CEO in the tech sector. It’s rare, however, to see a demo that provides reason to think it’s true. Microsoft’s worksite demo was one such rarity. It showed how AI, edge devices, and cloud connectivity might come together to do things that seemed like science-fiction even a half-decade ago.

Building for Cortana, everywhere

Another demo brought similar innovations even closer to home using Microsoft’s digital assistant, Cortana.

While the demo itself was about Cortana, the real stars are Microsoft’s platforms.

The demo showed a fictional morning routine. It started with a Cortana-enabled speaker at home, continued to a Cortana-enabled car, and ended with a Cortana-assisted meeting. Through the demo, Cortana changed how it worked based on the device through which the user interacted with it.

In a car, it relied on voice, and worked largely to provide schedule, map, and traffic information. While at work, Cortana connected to Skype, and could create action items based on what happened in the meeting.

Admittedly, this presentation felt a bit more fanciful than the preceding workplace demo, perhaps because Cortana is already a real product we can use. Cortana can’t do everything that was shown, and it isn’t as reliable in the real world as the demo wants us to think.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Still, the demo provided another example of how Microsoft’s geeky advancements could change everyday life. While the demo itself was about Cortana, the real stars are Microsoft’s platforms. The company wants developers to understand they can be used to improve almost anything. What works to make an industrial machine safer can also make scheduling a meeting easier.

Over your head, yet down to Earth

Passing Build off as “just a developer conference,” is easy to do. Most people find the announcement of a new Surface laptop, or new Windows 10 update, far more exciting.

What happens at Build shouldn’t be discounted. In fact, it’s more relevant than ever. Microsoft has evolved from an operating system company into a far-reaching company that shapes the framework of how tomorrow’s technology is used. Remember that when a few years from now, you find yourself clocking into work simply by showing up at the office.

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Matthew S. Smith
Matthew S. Smith is the former Lead Editor, Reviews at Digital Trends. He previously guided the Products Team, which dives…
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