Microsoft takes productivity, collaboration to the top floor at Build

At this year's Build event, Microsoft showed how serious it is about deepening the collaboration capabilities in its software.

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Martyn Williams/IDG

(Disclosure: The companies mentioned are clients of the author.)

Microsoft Build is my favorite Microsoft conference because it usually introduces me to fun new stuff to try out. Having this show be virtual is necessary because of the current environment but disappointing because it’s hard to check out some of the new things remotely. Interestingly, much of what Microsoft has been announcing at Build could fix that at future events because it’s turning up the ability of its tools to operate collaboratively far beyond what’s previously been possible.

Here's how Microsoft is pushing the productivity envelope this week.

How Microsoft wins

I’ve worked with and covered Microsoft since the 1970s. Back when it was a new company, it recruited me; I made one of the decisions I’ve since regretted and went to work for my father instead. It is amazing how Microsoft has changed through the decades. In the early years, it was known for being closed, proprietary, and for telling partners and customers what was going to happen as opposed to listening to what they wanted.

Today’s Microsoft is like that old Microsoft in name only. Now, it’s an open-source advocate and treats interoperability as a competitive edge. As one Microsoft customer, a multinational client, pointed out: they listen and collaborate today. In fact, this customer said this was unique at that level of business enterprises and a sharp contrast to Microsoft’s competitors. Microsoft now wants to work with its partners and customers, while competitors tend to hand out a catalog of products. 

This last has been a historical problem in technology. Tech companies know that customers aren’t up to speed on current versions of products but tend to think that’s a customer issue, not a vendor problem to solve. Microsoft, in contrast, appears to believe it’s its problem to solve, and it showcased that recognition at Build.

A new class of hardware

One of the biggest announcements at Build was Project Volterra. While Microsoft has clearly supported Windows on ARM, until this year the support wasn’t what the market needed. The issue: Windows and related apps developed for X86 ARM implementations had to run an X86 emulator (which mauled the available performance). Remember that ARM is a highly efficient architecture with little performance headroom.

Project Volterra is projected to be the first four-processor PC with not only the more traditional CPU and GPU processors, but also an NPU and an ACU (the last term is mine because Microsoft didn’t come up with another acronym). An NPU is a neural processing unit focused on AI loads that promises to provide far more AI performance at far less energy cost than any CPU or GPU can provide. The ACU is an Azure Compute Unit — the first major step to creating a hybrid model for the PC where loads shift seamlessly between the PC and the cloud as needed. 

In addition, Project Volterra is a focused workstation, the first from Microsoft. It mirrors somewhat what Nvidia has been doing for AI creation, but with much lower-cost hardware and greater use of cloud resources. 

In the end, Project Volterra will finally provide a hardware workstation platform that potentially fills out the Surface line (which has lacked a true workstation) with a focus on creating ARM-native software that would allow ARM to finally compete at its full potential. While Qualcomm is undoubtedly ecstatic about this — and for good reason — AMD and Intel are concerned with this move. 

Of the OEMs, Lenovo will likely be the first to come up with a branded Volterra alternative.  Lenovo has been the most aggressive OEM regarding its support for Microsoft announcements.

Collaboration and Teams

The entire Build event was focused on collaboration with far deeper integration of Teams capabilities into Microsoft’s developer tools, including GitHub and the emergence of an AI tool called GitHub Copilot.  Microsoft claimed it would cut coding time by around 30% by anticipating the code needed to complete a project and generating it automatically. In a very real way, this is collaboration with AI at a scale we haven’t seen before.

Not only was collaboration improved with AI (this idea I find fascinating), but for people working remotely it has been significantly bolstered as well. 

Teams gets an arguably better avatar experience than that showcased by Facebook, and it will increasingly allow 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 voicing suggestions and collectively create or change something more efficiently. (There was one fascinating example of a meeting where remote attendees interacted using tools like Microsoft Mesh, which goes far beyond what’s been do-able until now. 

With Mesh, Microsoft has added drop-in spaces so users can interact serendipitously, much as you’d grab someone’s eye while walking down the hall in the office. This focus on building relationships and new skills came up repeatedly during Build. You don’t even need a VR headset, but if you had one, the experience would be better. 

Microsoft looks ahead

At Build, Microsoft finally got serious about deepening its collaboration capabilities, which highlights one more advantage Microsoft has over other types of companies (both in and outside of the technology market). That advantage: the company operates off the tools it creates. This makes Microsoft its own most loyal and influential customer and assures that industry problems, like the need to support remote workers and create better ARM-native code, is driven by internal need. 

With this improved collaboration between Microsoft employees, partners, and customers, these immersive tools should give Microsoft a competitive advantage that will be hard for others to overcome. It’s worth watching CEO Satya Nadella’s keynote and learning more about Project Volterra.

One of the historical concerns with Microsoft was its embrace of changes the market didn’t want and often rejected. This year’s Build introduced a very different Microsoft, because this year’s offerings are solutions customers have been screaming for and will likely adopt. Once again, Microsoft proved it could pivot aggressively to the future — and that future will be more collaborative, more remote, and far more enhanced by AI than ever before. 

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