Microsoft Drift

Microsoft Drift

As an understatement, Microsoft has undergone a lot of changes since Satya Nadella took over as CEO. The manifestations of this vision have been fast and furious. But the real question is: that even though Sean beat D.K. down the mountain and across the finish line, will he be able to best Dom in a drifting competition? Whether those risky bets will pay off in the long run. Will Microsoft reinvent itself successfully as Apple did in the early 2000’s? Or will it continue a long, slow decline into obsolescence?

From his initial vision for Microsoft to be “cloud-first, mobile first” in everything it does, Nadella was intent on uprooting the complacency of Windows’ dominance in the tech world. After over a year of major changes, Microsoft is now at a nexus of possibilities for what their future holds. This is especially evident given the new initiatives they announced at their Build conference this past Wednesday. Whether you are intensely curious about Microsoft’s new initiatives, or struggle to maintain any semblance of interest in what they do, it’s worth a quick look at least.

Probably the most substantial and interesting bet on the future that Microsoft made is on Artificial Intelligence (AI). Microsoft is building the Cortana Intelligence Suite, which is essentially a framework for developers to create artificially intelligent “bots” designed to interact with Microsoft’s digital assistant, Cortana. Those AI bots, in turn, will be able to interact with each other and with “chat apps” that bridge the gap with human interactions via speech.

That last paragraph might leave your head spinning, so let’s try to break it down further. Microsoft is looking to create an ecosystem of artificially-intelligent software programs that interact with each other and with humans. AI research has been ongoing for decades and has certainly made great strides, but we haven’t seen much radical change due to AI. But Microsoft isn’t trying to tackle that incredibly difficult task of creating a singular artificial intelligence to rival a human being (others are trying to accomplish something similar to that). They’re starting small – with bots.

Microsoft is taking the approach of encouraging an ecosystem of third-party AI bots that can work collectively. Rather than having a human navigate through separate software systems (or require integration to be explicitly build-in), the idea is to have “worker bots” that bridge the gap between various systems and provide a level of automated integration that would otherwise not be possible. The specific tasks such bots would perform aren’t very difficult, per se (e.g. completing a hotel reservation for you). But to develop a full development platform (Cortana Intelligence Suite), attract enough developers to make it the standard development platform for AI, and successfully manage the incredibly complex mix of various systems that these AI bots would interact with – that’s a tall order.

So, I view Microsoft’s latest gambit with cautious optimism. They lost the mobile revolution. Universal applications for Windows are still more proof-of-concept than mass-market appeal. And despite the fast and furious pace of new developments and technologies coming out of Microsoft recently (HoloLens, anyone?), the question remains if they will be able to race past the competition.

As I speculated on an (as-yet-unreleased – spoiler alert!) episode of Quotidian Radio, is this going to be Microsoft’s Yahoo moment? New CEO, exciting new initiatives, and lots of optimism. A couple years down the road and Yahoo is a shell of its former self, on the chopping block to be sold off. Although Microsoft is not in such dire straits, one has to wonder if Microsoft will fall into the same optimism trap. Or will it forge ahead and dominate the next competitive market (after mobile) of AI bots? Satya Nadella has to navigate a lot of twists and turns for Microsoft to succeed. But something tells me he might just be the next drift king…

Microsoft Drift

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