Build 2018: Microsoft embraces its new platforms, Azure and Microsoft 365

SEATTLE—Windows isn’t going away any time soon. A glance at Microsoft’s financials makes clear that the Windows business is still important for Microsoft. But as the reorganization in March demonstrated, Windows is no longer central to Microsoft’s vision in the way it once was. Instead, it’s now part of a broader picture with two platforms: Azure and Microsoft 365.

Microsoft 365—the subscription service that includes Office, Windows, and a range of additional services on top—will be the focus tomorrow. Today was all about Azure.

The company’s major focus is currently machine learning, bringing new services and expanding the reach of those services to make it easier to use machine-learning features in a wide range of applications. That expanded reach comes from running machine-learning models on endpoint devices rather than in the cloud, allowing low-latency, offline operation.

To boost that effort, Microsoft has open-sourced its Azure IoT Edge Runtime, the company’s framework for building cloud-connected Internet-of-Things devices. Hardware partnerships using the runtime were also announced: certain drones from DJI will be able to run Azure IoT Edge on the drone itself. Image recognition workloads can be deployed to the drone, creating a flying machine that can, for example, fly along pipelines to spot cracks and other defects.

Qualcomm is also developing a vision platform enabling smart cameras which, again, run image-recognition tasks on-device.

More surprisingly, a new generation of Kinect sensors is being devised. Project Kinect for Azure is a Kinect-like sensor package (including the next-generation depth-mapping camera) with integrated compute power (for Azure IoT Edge). This will build on existing Kinect capabilities, such as higher-fidelity spatial mapping and motion tracking that’s granular to the level of individual fingers and knuckles.

On both the edge devices and in the cloud, Microsoft is offering a preview of Project Brainwave. First announced last year, Project Brainwave uses Intel FPGAs to accelerate machine-learning workloads with performance higher than that of GPU-based systems.

Beyond machine learning, Microsoft is still pushing mixed reality systems and continuing to push HoloLens as an industrial system. Two new services are being offered for these use cases. Remote Assist, which provides a collaborative working environment between HoloLens and Teams, enables frontline workers in the field to communicate hands-free with remote experts so that those experts can provide information and assistance for tasks such as diagnosing faults and servicing machinery. Layout is a tool for designing room layouts, placing virtual 3D objects in physical space.

There are a few things announced to make general development easier, too. Azure Kubernetes Service simplifies development and deployment of container-based services (both to the cloud and to IoT Edge). The Live Sharing collaborative coding and debugging system that first demoed last year is now in preview.

And finally, Microsoft is now offering integration between Visual Studio App Center and GitHub. App Center provides facilities such as continuous building and multi-device testing of mobile apps, and it can now be driven by code commits made to GitHub, in addition to Microsoft’s own Visual Studio Team Services.

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