Cortana wants to be your personal executive assistant and read your emails to you, too

Posted by on 4 November, 2019

This post was originally published on this site

Only a few years ago, Microsoft hoped that Cortana could become a viable competitor to the Google Assistant, Alexa and Siri . Over time, as Cortana failed to make a dent in the marketplace (do you ever remember that Cortana is built into your Windows 10 machine?), the company’s ambitions shrunk a bit. Today, Microsoft wants Cortana to be your personal productivity assistant — and to be fair, given the overall Microsoft ecosystem, Cortana may be better suited to that than to tell you about the weather.

At its Ignite conference, Microsoft today announced a number of new features that help Cortana to become even more useful in your day-to-day work, all of which fit into the company’s overall vision of AI as a tool that is helpful and augments human intelligence.

The first of these is a new feature in Outlook for iOS that uses Microsoft text-to-speech features to read your emails to you (using both a male and female voice). Cortana can also now help you schedule meetings and coordinate participants, something the company first demoed at previous conferences.

Starting next month, Cortana will also be able to send you a daily email that summarizes all of your meetings, presents you with relevant documents and reminders to “follow up on commitments you’ve made in email.” This last part, especially, should be interesting as it seems to go beyond the basic (and annoying) nudges to reply to emails in Google’s Gmail.

2019 11 01 0914

Posted Under: Tech News
Microsoft Teams gets Yammer integration, secure private channels, and more

Posted by on 4 November, 2019

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You’re forgiven if you thought Yammer, Microsoft’s proto-Slack, not quite realtime, chat application was dead. But it’s actually still alive (and well) — and still serves a purpose as a slower-moving social network-like channel for company- and team-wide announcements. Today, Microsoft announced that, among other updates, it will offer a Yammer integration in Teams, its Slack competitor. Yammer in Teams will live in the left-hand sidebar.

With this, Microsoft’s two main enterprise communications platforms are finally growing together and will give users the option to Teams for fast-moving chats and Yammer as their enterprise social network in the same way Facebook messenger and its news feed complement each other.

Oh, and Yammer itself has been redesigned, too, using Microsoft’s Fluent Design System across all platforms. And Microsoft is also building it into Outlook, too, to let you respond to messages right from your inbox. This new Yammer will roll out as a private preview in December.

With this update, Teams is getting a number of other new features, too. These include secure private channels, multiwindow chats and meetings, pinned channels and task integration with Microsoft To Do and Planner (because having one todo app is never enough). Microsoft is also making a number of enhancements to Teams Room, with upcoming support for Cisco WebEx and Zoom meetings, the Teams Phone System, which is getting emergency calling, and the IT management features that help admins keep Teams secure.

A Teams client for Linux is also in the works and will be available in public preview later this year.

Posted Under: Tech News
You can now ask Excel questions about your data

Posted by on 4 November, 2019

This post was originally published on this site

Microsoft today announced an update to Excel that brings natural language queries to the venerable spreadsheet tool. Available now to Office Insiders, this new feature allows you to talk to Excel like you’re talking to a person and get quick answers to your queries without having to write a query.

“Natural language query is another step toward making data insights and visualization more approachable and accessible to users with various levels of Excel experience,” Microsoft explains. “Novice users will not need to know how to write a formula to gain useful insights from their data, while power users will be able to save time by automating the data discovery process by simply asking the right questions and quickly adding charts and tables they need for better and faster decisions.”

It’s worth noting that Google already offers similar features in Google Sheets. In my experience, Google sometimes does a pretty good job at finding data but also regularly fails to find even a single relevant data point, so it remains to be seen how good Excel is compared to that.

Today’s announcement is one in a series of recent launches for Excel that brought a number of new machine learning smarts to the spreadsheet. Among those is Excel’s ability to better understand your entries and provide you with additional information about stocks, geographical data and more.

Posted Under: Tech News
Microsoft launches Power Virtual Agents, its no-code bot builder

Posted by on 4 November, 2019

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Microsoft today announced the public preview of its Power Virtual Agents tool, a new no-code tool for building chatbots that’s part of the company’s Power Platform, which also includes Microsoft Flow automation tool, which is being renamed to Power Automate today, and Power BI.

Built on top of Azure’s existing AI smarts and tools for building bots, Power Virtual Agents promises to make building a chatbot almost as easy as writing a Word document. With this, anybody within an organization could build a bot that walks a new employee through the onboarding experience for example.

“Power virtual agent is the newest addition to the Power Platform family,” said Microsoft’s Charles Lamanna in an interview ahead of today’s announcement. “Power Virtual Agent is very much focused on the same type of low code, accessible to anybody, no matter whether they’re a business user or business analyst or professional developer, to go build a conversational agent that’s AI-driven and can actually solve problems for your employees, for your customers, for your partners, in a very natural way.”

Power Virtual Agents handles the full lifecycle of the bot building experience, from the creation of the dialog to making it available in chat systems that include Teams, Slack, Facebook Messenger and others. Using Microsoft’s AI smarts, users don’t have to spend a lot of time defining every possible question and answer, but can instead rely on the tool to understand intentions and trigger the right action. “We do intent understanding, as well as entity extraction, to go and find the best topic for you to go down,” explained Lamanna. Like similar AI systems, the service also learns over time, based on feedback it receives from users.

One nice feature here is that if your setup outgrows the no-code/low-code stage and you need to get to the actual code, you’ll be able to convert the bot to Azure resources since that’s what’s powering the bot anyway. Once you’ve edited the code, you obviously can’t take it back into the no-code environment. “We have an expression for Power Platform, which is ‘no cliffs.’ […] The idea of ‘no cliffs’ is that the most common problem with a low-code platform is that, at some point, you want more control, you want code. And that’s frequently where low-code platforms run out of gas and you really have issues because you can’t have the pro dev take it over, you can’t make it mission-critical.”

The service is also integrated with tools like Power Automate/Microsoft Flow to allow users to trigger actions on other services based on the information the chatbot gathers.

Lamanna stressed that the service also generates lots of advanced analytics for those who are building bots with it. With this, users can see what topics are being asked about and where the system fails to provide answers, for example. It also visualizes the different text inputs that people provide so that bot builders can react to that.

Over the course of the last two or three years, we went from a lot of hype around chatbots to deep disillusionment with the experience they actually delivered. Lamanna isn’t fazed by that. In part, those earlier efforts failed because the developers weren’t close enough to the users. They weren’t product experts or part of the HR team inside a company. By using a low-code/no-code tool, he argues, the actual topic experts can build these bots. “If you hand it over to a developer or an AI specialist, they’re geniuses when it comes to developing code, but they won’t know the details and ins and outs of, say, the shoe business – and vice versa. So it actually changes how development happens.”

Posted Under: Tech News
Microsoft launches managed meeting rooms as a service

Posted by on 4 November, 2019

This post was originally published on this site

Whether you love them or hate them (and you probably hate them), meetings are a fact of corporate life. And how many meetings have you attended that didn’t start on time because of technical difficulties? Microsoft wants to change that by managing your meeting rooms for you — starting at $50 per room. Managed Meeting Rooms, as the company calls the service, is now in private preview, but ahead of today’s announcement, Microsoft already quietly worked with more than 100 customers to manage more than 1,500 meetings rooms for them.

As Brad Anderson, Microsoft’s corporate VP for Microsoft 365, told me, the Teams team did a lot of work to optimize its software to make starting video and audio-based meetings easy.

“But when you think about a room for a minute, there’s a bunch of hardware in the room, in addition to the software that’s operating Teams. There’s the device on the table, you’ve got screens, you got microphones, you’ve got cameras, you’ve got projectors, you’ve got all the cabling,” Anderson said. “And in order for a meeting to be seamless and great, all that hardware also has to be functional. So what we have done with the managed meeting room solution is we have now instrumented all the hardware.”

The solution supports Microsoft Teams Rooms and Skype for Business room systems, but Microsoft also can help companies select the right tools to set up a meeting room. With all of that in place, the company can then monitor all of that through a cloud service and ensure that everything is up and running. When there are issues — at least issues that can be fixed remotely — the team can also fix those and the meeting can start on time.

“Very few organizations have enough rooms to actually get proficient in meeting room management,” Anderson explained. “So it’s one of these things where organizations have to make that choice: do I go and actually try to build up the expertise when it sounds like Microsoft has a solution, which is actually very affordable […] If we just avoid one meeting from going south for 10 minutes, you actually make your money back.”

Posted Under: Tech News
Microsoft launches Project Cortex, a knowledge network for your company

Posted by on 4 November, 2019

This post was originally published on this site

At its annual Ignite IT conference in Orlando, Florida, Microsoft today announced Project Cortex, its first new commercial product since the launch of Teams. The general idea here is to allow employees to quickly find information that’s spread out across documents in Microsoft’s various services and make it available both through searches and, when its algorithms deem it appropriate, in the form of hover-links inside of Microsoft products like the Office apps, Outlook and Teams.

“As we have thought about people getting work done together, as we have thought about productivity — really broadly defined — for more than 10 years we have had this vision of being able to not only help people transactionally get things done but also allowing them to take a step back and capture what the organization knows and put that to use, put that to work,” said Jared Spataro, Microsoft’s corporate vice president of its Microsoft 365 business, in a pre-recorded press briefing the company made available to the media ahead of today’s announcement.

So with Project Cortex, which Microsoft referred to simply as “Knowledge Network” in earlier materials it provided to the press, the company built a system that can ingest all of these artifacts, including all of the Office documents, email, chat logs and transcripts from meeting recordings that a company generates, and that then uses machine learning to classify all of this information into topics and topics collections to form this network.

“The whole idea here is that it’s kind of a spelunker that’s going down into all your content repositories, whether they’re in Microsoft 365, on-prem and file shares and other systems,” explained Spataro. “And it’s searching these things out and putting them together and saying, ‘hey, you have a project here,’ for instance a project or something you’re working on. I can put documents and videos and meetings together, calendar appointments. I can pull people and I can tell you what the organization knows in a 360-degree view about this topic.”

All of this data can then be surfaced inside Microsoft’s products. If you’re writing and email and Microsoft detects that it’s about a project that the Knowledge Network knows about, it’ll link that term so that you can hover over the words and see additional information about it. It’ll show you who is working on this, when the work started, and a map that shows you this project or topic in relation to others. Ideally, this helps you identify the experts about a given topic inside your organization and make connections you would otherwise miss.

All of these are lofty ideas and we’ve heard some of these promises before, in relation to the Microsoft Graph, which is a slightly different project but which was also meant to make all of the data inside an organization more accessible, though mostly by developers.

Project Cortex is now in private preview. It’ll be generally available in the first half of 2020.

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Microsoft’s Azure Synapse Analytics bridges the gap between data lakes and warehouses

Posted by on 4 November, 2019

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At its annual Ignite conference in Orlando, Fla., Microsoft today announced a major new Azure service for enterprises: Azure Synapse Analytics, which Microsoft describes as “the next evolution of Azure SQL Data Warehouse.” Like SQL Data Warehouse, it aims to bridge the gap between data warehouses and data lakes, which are often completely separate. Synapse also taps into a wide variety of other Microsoft services, including Power BI and Azure Machine Learning, as well as a partner ecosystem that includes Databricks, Informatica, Accenture, Talend, Attunity, Pragmatic Works and Adatis. It’s also integrated with Apache Spark.

The idea here is that Synapse allows anybody working with data in those disparate places to manage and analyze it from within a single service. It can be used to analyze relational and unstructured data, using standard SQL.

Microsoft also highlights Synapse’s integration with Power BI, its easy to use business intelligence and reporting tool, as well as Azure Machine Learning for building models.

With the Azure Synapse studio, the service provides data professionals with a single workspace for prepping and managing their data, as well as for their big data and AI tasks. There’s also a code-free environment for managing data pipelines.

As Microsoft stresses, businesses that want to adopt Synapse can continue to use their existing workloads in production with Synapse and automatically get all of the benefits of the service. “Businesses can put their data to work much more quickly, productively, and securely, pulling together insights from all data sources, data warehouses, and big data analytics systems,” writes Microsoft CVP of Azure Data, Rohan Kumar.

In a demo at Ignite, Kumar also benchmarked Synapse against Google’s BigQuery. Synapse ran the same query over a petabyte of data in 75% less time. He also noted that Synapse can handle thousands of concurrent users — unlike some of Microsoft’s competitors.

Posted Under: Tech News
Sumo Logic acquires JASK to fill security operations gap

Posted by on 4 November, 2019

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Sumo Logic, a mature security event management startup with a valuation over $1 billion, announced today that it has acquired JASK, a security operations startup that raised almost $40 million. The companies did not share the terms of the deal.

Sumo’s CEO Ramin Sayer, says that the combined companies give customers a complete security solution. Sumo offers what’s known in industry parlance as a security information and event management (SIEM) tool, while JASK provides a security operations center or SOC (pronounced “sock“). Both are focused on securing workloads in a cloud native environment and can work in tandem.

Sayer says that as companies shift workloads to the cloud they need to reevaluate their security tools. “The interesting thing about the market today is that the traditional enterprises are much more aggressively taking a security-first posture as they start to plan for new workloads in the cloud, let alone workloads that they are migrating. Part of that requires them to evaluate their tools, teams, and more importantly a lot of their processes that they’ve built in and around their legacy systems as well as their SOC,” he said.

He says that combining the two organizations helps customers moving to the cloud automate a lot of their security requirements, something that’s increasingly important due to the lack of highly skilled security personnel. That means the more that software can do, the better.

“We see a lot of dysfunction in the marketplace and the whole movement towards automation really compliments and supplements the gap that we have in the workforce, particularly in terms of security folks. This what JASK has been trying to do for four plus years, and it’s what Sumo has been trying to do for nearly 10 years in terms of using various algorithms and machine learning techniques to suppress a lot of false alerts, triage the process and help drive efficiency and more automation,” he said.

JASK CEO and co-founder Greg Martin says the shift to the cloud has also precipitated two major changes in the security space that have driven this growing need for security automation. “The perimeter is disappearing and that fundamentally changes how we have to perform cyber security. The second is that the footprint of threats and data are so large now that security operations is no longer a human scalable problem” he said. Echoing Sayer, he says that requires a much higher level of automation.

JASK was founded in 2015, raising $39 million, according to Crunchbase data. Investors included Battery Ventures, Dell Technologies Capital, TenEleven Ventures and Kleiner Perkins. Its last round was a $25 million Series B led by Kleiner in June 2018.

Deepak Jeevankumar, managing director at Dell Technologies Capital, whose company was part of JASK’s Series A investment and who invests frequently in security startups, sees  the two companies joining forces as a strong combination.

Sumo Logic and JASK have the same mission to disrupt today’s security industry which suffers from legacy security tools, siloed teams and alert fatigue. Both companies are pioneers in cloud-native security and share the same maniacal customer focus. Sumo Logic is therefore a great culture and product fit for JASK to continue its journey,” Jeevankumer told TechCrunch.

Sumo has raised $345 million, according to the company. It was valued at over $1 billion in its most recent funding round last May when it raised $110 million.

CRN first reported that this deal was in the works in an article on October 22nd.

Posted Under: Tech News
Microsoft’s Chromium-based Edge browser gets new privacy features, will be generally available January 15

Posted by on 4 November, 2019

This post was originally published on this site

Microsoft today announced that its Chromium-based Edge browser will be generally available on January 15 and that the release candidate for Windows and macOS is now available for download (and that it features a new icon).

The development of the new Edge has progressed pretty rapidly and the latest build has been very stable, even as Microsoft started building more differentiated features like Collections into its more experimental builds.

With today’s release, Microsoft also is announcing new privacy features. The marquee feature here is probably the new InPrivate browsing mode that now, in combination with Bing, will keep your online searches and identities private. InPrivate, as the name implies, already deleted any information about your browsing session on your local machine when you closed the window. But now, when you search with Bing, Microsoft’s search engine you’ve probably forgotten about, your search history on Bing and any personally identifiable data will also not be saved or associated back to you.

By default, Edge will also now enable tracking prevention. “One of the things that’s hard on the web is how to balance the desire for privacy and the protection of your data — and yet you still want the web to be personalized,” said Yusuf Mehdi, the corporate vice president of Microsoft’s Modern Life, Search and Devices Group, in a pre-recorded briefing ahead of today’s announcement. “The problem today is, nobody has really nailed it. You’ve got some good companies doing some really innovative work to try and have super-strict privacy controls. The problem is, they break the web. And then you’ve got other ones who say, ‘hey, don’t worry about it, we’re just going to make it all work for you.’ But in the background, your data is getting tracked.” Mehdi, of course, thinks that Microsoft’s approach is the better one here — and more balanced.

Posted Under: Tech News
Microsoft launched Endpoint Manager to modernize device management

Posted by on 4 November, 2019

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Ever since the days of Windows NT, the Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager (better known as ConfigMgr) has allowed companies to manage the increasingly large number of devices they issue to their employees. Then, back in 2011, the company also launched Intune, its cloud-based endpoint management system for corporate and BYOD devices. These days, most enterprises that use Microsoft’s tools use ConfigMgr to manage their PCs and then opt for Intune for mobile devices — and that’s a complex system to manage, even for sophisticated IT departments. So today, at its annual Ignite conference for IT professionals, Microsoft is announcing a way forward for these users to modernize their systems with the launch of the unified Microsoft Endpoint Manager.

As Brad Anderson, Microsoft’s corporate VP for Microsoft 365, told me, he takes some blame for this. “A lot of this falls on my shoulders because we just allowed everything to get complex. So we’re just simplifying everything,” he said. “So really at the core, what we think modern management is that modern management is it’s management that is driven by cloud intelligence.”

The general idea here, Anderson explained, is that in earlier eras of IT management, Microsoft and its partners didn’t have the tools to collect and analyze all of the signals it received from these management tools. That’s obviously not a problem anymore today and see the company can use the telemetry it gets from a company’s PC deployments, for example, to figure out where there are problems.

“One of the things that we’re able to do is be learned as cloud-scale as we can help organizations improve their end-user experience,” Anderson noted. Common issues with that experience could be extremely long boot times, which slow down and frustrate employees, or issues with the delivery of important security patches. Today, all of this is often still managed by spreadsheets and complex security policies that are administrated manually — and Anderson argues that these days, you always have to think about security and management together anyway.

To quantify this user experience, Microsoft is also introducing what it calls the Microsoft Productivity Score, which looks at both how employees are working and using their tools, as well as how their technology is enabling them (or not) to do so. “The Productivity Score is all about helping an organization understand the experience their users are having — and then giving them the insights and the actions on what they can do to improve that,” explained Anderson.

Over the course of the last few months, Microsoft actually worked with some large customers and took over the management of their Windows 365 and Office deployments, meaning those machines ran nothing but Microsoft 365 agents (and a control group that was managed in a more traditional way). The devices with the modern management system saw an 85 percent reduction in boot time and an 85 percent reduction in crashes and a doubling of battery life. Unsurprisingly, the employees that used the devices were also far happier.

As far as the device management experience goes, the new Endpoint Manager and the licensing changes that come with that are meant to not just simplify the branding but also the experience. And Microsoft definitely wants people to move to this modern system, so it’s giving everybody who has ConfigMgr licenses Intune licenses, too, so that they can co-manage their PCs with both tools and get access to the cloud-based features of Intune. The Microsoft Endpoint Manager console will show a single view of all devices managed by either product. “It’s all about simplifying — and we’re taking that simplifying deep and broad from a branding, licensing and product perspective,” said Anderson.

Today, ConfigMgr and Intune manage well over 190 million Windows, iOS and Android devices. Yet Microsoft knows that not every company is ready to move to this modern device management system just yet. That’s why it’s making these licensing changes to help get people on board, but also leaving the existing systems in place and giving them an onramp to move to provisioning new machines to be cloud-managed, for example.

Posted Under: Tech News
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