AI Platform

A framework of Azure services that aim to help customers build Big Data solutions, formerly known as the Cortana Intelligence Suite

AI Platform

A framework of Azure services that aim to help customers build Big Data solutions, formerly known as the Cortana Intelligence Suite

Microsoft's Loop collaboration app reaches preview, gets the 'Copilot' AI treatment
Microsoft's long-promised Loop collaboration app, which is getting an AI infusion via the Microsoft 365 Copilot technology, is now available in public preview.
Screen shot of Microsoft Loop app showing menu selections

In 2021, Microsoft announced plans to build yet another collaboration app called Loop. But it wasn't until today, March 22, that this competitor to Notion, hit public preview.

"Loop" is the branding that Microsoft is using for many, but not all, of its Fluid Framework collaboration technologies. Fluid Framework enables fast coauthoring and compound documents that include elements that are synched in near real-time. Microsoft already has been delivering Loop components in Outlook (for both Windows and the web) and Teams.

The Loop app can be used both as a standalone app/canvas, as well as in the form of an embeddable pages that can be built into Microsoft apps like Outlook, Teams, OneNote, Word for the web and Whiteboard, officials have said. The Loop app basically functions as a kind of project manager built around a common workspace. Users can build Loop pages using templates or by dragging blocks of content into their workspaces where they can collectively chat, comment, edit and keep on top of tasks and to-dos. SharePoint provides the underlying storage and collaboration platform for the Loop app, officials said.

Unsurprisingly, Microsoft also is adding its Microsoft 365 Copilot AI assistant technology to Loop, officials disclosed today. Users will be able to use prompts such as "create," "brainstorm," "blueprint" and "describe" or use their own words to get specific, customized suggestions. While the Loop app itself is in public preview as of today, the Copilot in Loop capability is in private preview only.

To test-drive the Loop app public preview, users can go to the Loop home page to access it on the web. Or they can download the mobile versions of the app for Android and iOS, but currently for work accounts only. As Microsoft officials noted in a message in the Microsoft 365 admin center earlier this month, the Loop app is off by default in public preview, so it won't be available in organizations unless IT specifically enables it. The preview does not yet meet all of Microsoft's compliance capabilities, as eDiscovery, Sensitivity labeling and other features are not yet enabled. Microsoft officials said they will provide a list of what's coming when in future roadmap updates.

A company spokesperson said that Microsoft has "nothing to share at this time" about when Microsoft plans to make the Loop app generally available. Officials also are not yet talking about packaging, licensing or pricing for the Loop app.

Microsoft to integrate generative AI capabilities into Microsoft 365
There's no word on when business customers will get the new Microsoft 'Copilot' for work technologies or how they'll be priced or licensed. But they're coming.
Stylized image saying 'Introducing Copilot across Microsoft 365"

As rumored, Microsoft is adding new generative AI capabilities to its key Office apps, including Word, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint, and Teams "in the months ahead." It also is adding Copilot assistive technologies to Power Apps, Power Virtual Agents and Power Automate. And officials announced today a coming Business Chat capability that builds on next-generation large-language model technology.

Microsoft is not talking specific timing, pricing or licensing for any of these at this point. Officials did say the Copilot features are in limited testing with 20 customers. But there's no way for customers to sign up for a waiting list for a preview. And there's also no word yet on how admins will be able to manage and control these new features.

Microsoft execs talked up and demonstrated how the coming Microsoft 365 Copilot will work across the Office suite. They showed off how Copilot will allow users to more easily write, edit and summarize in Word; to identify trends and create data visualizations more quickly in Excel; to access real-time meeting summaries and action items in conversations in Teams and more. On March 15, the day before Microsoft's big reveal, Google showed off its own work to make AI part of its Workspace apps, including Docs, Sheets, Gmail, Slides, Meet and Chat.

It's not clear how the Copilot in Teams capability will build on/complement the intelligent recap feature that Microsoft already has announced and showed off for Teams. It's also not apparent whether these new AI features will replace AI technologies that Microsoft has released for Microsoft 365 over the past few years, such as the Editor feature in Word, Designer in PowerPoint and ContextIQ predictive assistance technologies officials previously announced would be coming to Office. I've asked, but no word back so far.

Update: A Microsoft spokesperson sent the following response: "Microsoft 365 Copilot is intended to work hand in hand with already existing offerings. Features like Editor in Word and Designer in PowerPoint are assistants that are designed to offer valuable and relevant recommendations to help improve your writing and/or presentations. Copilot builds on this by generating content, refining existing content and offering advanced feedback."

Another new feature coming to Microsoft 365 is Business Chat, which Microsoft describes as a vehicle to bring together data from across documents, presentations, email, calendar, notes and contacts "to help summarize chats, write emails, find key dates or even write a plan based on other project files." I've asked how Business Chat relates to Search with Bing, which allows users to surface many of these same entities when signed into Bing. No word back so far.

Update: "We incorporate various models from OpenAI and Microsoft depending on the product and experience. These are powerful next-generation large language models, including GPT-4, that have been customized for our products. For example, recommending specific edits to a paragraph in Word may be best suited for one model whereas formatting updates could be powered just as well, and perhaps more quickly, with a different model. 

"If customers are logged into Bing with their work account, they will be able to see relevant results from their organization and the web. We’ll have more to share about the experience in the coming months," the aforementioned spokesperson added.

Microsoft didn't simply add OpenAI's ChatGPT chatbot feature to Microsoft 365 to create this new Copilot technology, officials claim. They said Copilot for Microsoft 365 will inherit the security and management controls that exist in Microsoft 365 already. They also made a point of claiming that "Copilot’s large language models are not trained on customer content or on individual prompts," as noted in their press release.

It's very early days for Microsoft's growing family of Copilot assistants. GitHub Copilot, announced last year, is still facing legal challenges. And a number of customers and company watchers are concerned about the security, privacy, compliance and accuracy of these kinds of assistants in the workplace. Microsoft'sdesire to speed up its announcement and delivery pace in the AI space in the name of looking like a first mover instead of a (not-so) fast follower also is a legitimate worry.

Microsoft’s new Bing AI chatbot could be coming to the enterprise, too
Microsoft's ChatGPT-based Bing bot is all about consumers (and advertisers) for now. But the technology could find its way into business software and services, maybe in the not-too-distant future.
A stylized image showing Bing, Search and Chat from the new Bing search

Microsoft's new Bing chatbot is a consumer-focused technology. To gain access to the preview, users need to sign in with their Microsoft Accounts; it doesn't work with Work or School accounts. But there are signs that Microsoft won't take long to integrate the new Bing bot technology into some of its business products and services, as well.

A little more than a week after its splashy introduction, the new ChatGPT-powered Bing chatbot is showing up in more places. As of today, February 22, it's now available in preview in Bing on iOS and Android devices, as well as an integrated part of the latest Skype client release.

Why start with consumer, rather than business scenarios? Microsoft often uses consumers as unofficial testers before making products available to business customers. And given that the new Bing Bot has been behaving badly and got put in a timeout, caution is warranted.

Then there’s the money angle. Microsoft officials no doubt are hoping that the new "AI-powered answer engine," as they're referring to the new Bing, will help the company grow market share for Bing and Edge, and pull more Microsoft Advertising dollars along with it.

Microsoft already enables customers to roll their own OpenAI integration via its paid Azure OpenAI service. And it has integrated OpenAI's GPT-3+ technology—minus the chatbot part—into Power BI, Viva Sales and Teams Premium. It also offers developers access to Bing programming interfaces for their own custom use, but given the huge price hike for these APIs that is coming this May, that option is looking less viable than ever. Add to that the complexity and overhead required to generate large-language models, many customers will be looking to Microsoft to do the heavy lifting here rather than attempting to do it themselves.

In creating the new Bing bot, Microsoft built on top of "the next generation" OpenAI GPT model (which is something more recent than GPT 3.5, but seemingly not GPT 4.0). Microsoft integrated this model with its Bing indexing, ranking and search results, along with Microsoft's Responsible AI Framework, and christened the combination "Prometheus." The new model powers the updated version of Bing search, as well as the new Bing chat mode.

What might be next for the Bing chatbot? Given that Teams and Skype share the same underlying foundation, maybe the Bing bot will show up in not just the consumer/free version of Teams, but in the Microsoft 365 one, too, now that Microsoft is previewing the new Bing bot integrated into Skype.

There also are rumors that Microsoft is planning to add ChatGPT capabilities to its Office apps in March, according to The Verge. (It's not clear if Microsoft will limit this, at least initially, to a subset of Office apps for families/individuals by making this capability reliant on a Microsoft Account, rather than a Work/School one.)

Microsoft already offers AI integration in Office via a variety of other AI technologies like Editor in Word and Designer in PowerPoint. But as the new Bing bot told me when I asked, the current AI features in Office "are mostly focused on enhancing the user experience and productivity, such as suggesting captions, improving acoustics, or auto-completing code." The coming ChatGPT-powered in Word, PowerPoint and Outlook would be more focused on "new and advanced" capabilities like "generating graphs, graphics, and text from user input."

(To be frank, I wouldn't put too much faith on these Bing-bot-generated answers, since even though they sound authoritative, they change every time I ask the same query.)

There are more hints about where Microsoft is dabbling with Bing-bot integration in other business areas.

A highly likely candidate: Integration of the ChatGPT bot technology with Microsoft's Power Virtual Agents (PVAs). PVA is the unofficial successor to Microsoft's Bot Framework. It's meant to help people create chatbots. It seems like a no brainer to make creating chat bots even simpler by adding a chat-centric front-end. A number of people already are finding ways to do this integration themselves.

It's also worth pointing out that Microsoft is testing a number of "modes" for the new Bing chat bot that could extend its usefulness. In addition to a Game mode, there's also a Friend mode, the regular Bing Chat "Sydney" mode and an Assistant mode (hello, Bing Concierge Bot 2.0!), as Bleeping Computer recently discovered. After the author unearthed these modes, Microsoft cut off public access to them.

There are possible new vertical/domain-specific uses, as well. On the research front, Microsoft is experimenting with integrating GPT and natural language processing capabilities and training a new "BioGPT" model on biomedical literature. Its researchers also have done work in using ChatGPT as a front-end for robotics tasks.

I'm seeing more and more reports of businesses discouraging, if not outright banning, their employees from using ChatGPT at work. But Pandora's box has been opened. More rules and tools are needed before enterprise customers will begin to trust ChatGPT and its progeny. But there's no turning back now.

Microsoft Azure is a teen now. Will an AI infusion lead to a further growth spurt?
Azure has come a long way since it launched as a Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) service in 2010. And the way it evolves going forward could impact Microsoft customers in key ways.
A blue sky with clouds and skyscrapers

It was 13 years ago this week that Microsoft "turned on" its Azure public cloud service by making it generally available. Even though Microsoft was four years behind AWS in getting into the market, it did a lot to catch up fast. Now, all eyes are on how Microsoft plans to try to continue to grow Azure and differentiate itself from the competition—and how those moves could affect its customers.

Since its start as codename "Red Dog," Azure encountered more than a few speed bumps. Microsoft launched Windows Azure, as it was known originally, as a PaaS play only. Later, Microsoft officials saw the money and customer demand was in the Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) space. Customers wanted a quick way to get into the cloud without having to rewrite their apps and IaaS looked like the best option.

Two years after Azure's launch, Microsoft shifted gears and enabled support for Linux on Azure. The course correction worked and by 2018, "about half" of Azure VMs were running Linux, not Windows Server, officials said. (Microsoft hasn't provided publicly an updated number beyond that, as far as I know.)

Microsoft originally was expecting Azure to host its own internal services, like Bing and Hotmail (much the same way that Amazon originally looked at AWS as a way to run its retail operations). Microsoft still hasn't managed to get Exchange, SharePoint or Bing completely rehosted on Azure, but it has launched its newer services, like Teams and Xbox Cloud Gaming, on Azure. And like AWS, Microsoft subsequently made available excess compute and storage to other software vendors, customers and partners while growing its set of commercially available Azure services.

"What’s amazing to me is that Microsoft has pretty much caught up technically with AWS to the extent that you can think of most cloud services as commodities, which is quite an achievement," says Directions on Microsoft analyst Barry Briggs. "Core and PaaS services are pretty much equivalent and mature."

So what's coming in the next 13-plus years for Azure, especially given its growth is slowing, as officials admitted during the company's most recent earnings call? Right now, Microsoft seems to be putting a lot of focus on AI as a potential differentiator. It recently made generally available the Azure OpenAI service, which adds enterprise capabilities like compliance, security and management on top of OpenAI's models (which are trained on Azure). And Azure OpenAI is set to get a ChatGPT natural-language chat bot addition, possibly before February is over.

But AI isn't the only place Microsoft is likely to try to gain mind and market share with Azure.

"I think MS now differentiates by leveraging Microsoft 365 integration, its integration with on-premises (where it's way, way ahead), and its move into verticals. AWS differentiates by virtue of scale and its investments in custom hardware (Annapurna acquisition which led to Graviton, Nitro, and Inferentia)," says Directions' Briggs.

Directions on Microsoft analyst Rob Helm agrees: "As for what will allow Azure to catch up with Amazon: It may come down to what worked for Office and many other Microsoft products: Licensing, especially bundling into enterprise-wide licensing contracts."

Could OpenAI's ChatGPT make Microsoft's long-rumored Bing chatbot a reality?
Microsoft has been working to integrate OpenAI's natural-language technology into a variety of its products for the past couple of years. Bing may be up next.
A graphical representation of Microsoft chatbots

Ever since Microsoft invested $1 billion in OpenAI in 2019, Microsoft officials have been working to find ways to integrate OpenAI's GPT-3 natural-language-model technology into various Microsoft products and services.

Microsoft secured a deal via which Azure became OpenAI's exclusive cloud provider. Microsoft created an Azure-based supercomputer to train OpenAI's massive AI models. In 2020, Microsoft obtained an exclusive license to GPT-3, though OpenAI still offers GPT-3 and other models via its own Azure-hosted programming interface. Microsoft also sells what it calls the Azure OpenAI service, (members) which adds Microsoft-provided enterprise capabilities to the core OpenAI models.

Microsoft already uses OpenAI features internally to power natural language processes in Power BI, Power Apps, and GitHub Copilot (members). Earlier this week, as originally reported by The Information and confirmed by Bloomberg, Microsoft also is working on a way to bring OpenAI's GPT technology to Bing via ChatGPT.

ChatGPT is a chat bot that is in public preview from OpenAI that isn't connected to web-search results. Instead, it is fine-tuned from the GPT-3.5 language model to product text, according to OpenAI. The ChatGPT models were trained on data from the Internet written by humans, including conversations, in order to make it sound more human-like.

Many are assuming that the big advantage Microsoft could gain from ChatGPT is in improving the way web-search results are rendered in Bing. But the real potential value of ChatGPT to Bing isn't mostly about natural-language answers to web-search queries, given that Bing, like Google, already has been providing for years more than a bunch of blue links in response to web-search queries.

Sure, ChatGPT could evolve Bing web search into something more conversational, rather than having users craft query terms to get the results they need. But do people really need that? It feels as if users have become accustomed to and proficient at crafting queries, and conversational search could be cumbersome. Knowledge workers and power users don't need the overhead of conversing with "intelligent" agents.

What if ChatGPT enables Microsoft to pull over the goal-line its long-rumored and occasionally seen Bing chatbot? ChatGPT also could play a role in providing more contextual answers not just to Bing web-search queries but also to unified Microsoft Search queries across more of Microsoft's enterprise products and services.

Microsoft has been working on a service called "Bing Concierge Bot" since at least 2016. For a while (during the rise and eventual fall of Microsoft's Cortana assistant), the Bing Concierge Bot project went quiet. But it reemerged in 2021 and has been tested publicly in various geographies since then in the form of a Bing chat bot. Some Bing users reported seeing the experimental Bing chat bot pop up when doing web searches at various points in 2021 and 2022.

Some may forget that Bing is more than just a web-search engine. Bing also is part of the Microsoft Search built-in search service for a number of Microsoft 365 enterprise products (members). If Microsoft ends up integrating ChatGPT into Microsoft Search, it potentially could bring deeper, more natural-language style responses to queries for business-specific queries within products like Teams, SharePoint and more, I'd think.

While it's easy to paint the OpenAI-Microsoft alliance as being a way for Microsoft to try to grow Bing's web-search share vs. Google, there are a number of other equally far-ranging implications for what ChatGPT and GPT in general could bring to Microsoft and customers.

Microsoft prepares to sunset its Azure Percept AI dev kit
Microsoft had high hopes for its Azure Percept IoT dev kit when it launched. But the AI-focused product is now being discontinued as of 2023.
A graphical representation of the Percept IoT dev kit

When Microsoft launched its Azure Percept IoT dev kit in March 2021, it had some lofty goals for it. Officials went so far as to say that they saw Percept as the cornerstone for building an IoT device ecosystem around Azure services the same way that Windows helped create the PC market.But these plans have fizzled to the point of Microsoft dropping Azure Percept in 2023 (members).

Azure Percept—which never exited preview—was/is heavily focused on AI. It includes a development kit with a camera called "Azure Percept Vision." It also has an Azure Percept Studio "getting started" experience meant to guide customers who don't have a lot of coding experience through the AI lifecycle of developing, training, and deploying proof-of-concept ideas.

Azure Percept Audio, which like Azure Percept Vision, ships separately from the dev kit, is meant to enable AI speech services on edge devices. Azure Percept devices can automatically connect to Azure IoT Hub to enable secure communications between IoT devices and the cloud. Microsoft announced the end of Azure Percept rather quietly in a note it posted in mid-October to its Microsoft Learn documentation page about the product.

The note says:

Retirement of Azure Percept DK:

The Azure Percept public preview will be evolving to support new edge device platforms and developer experiences. As part of this evolution the Azure Percept DK and Audio Accessory and associated supporting Azure services for the Percept DK will be retired March 30th, 2023. Effective March 30th, 2023, the Azure Percept DK and Audio Accessory will no longer be supported by any Azure services including Azure Percept Studio, OS updates, containers updates, view web stream, and Custom Vision integration. Microsoft will no longer provide customer success support and any associated supporting services. For more information, please visit the Retirement Notice Blog Post.

Users will need to close the resources and projects associated with the Azure Percept Studio and DK to avoid future billing, Microsoft said in a related Percept retirement blog post. In early November, Microsoft added an update to its retirement information, stating:

A firmware update that enables the Vision SoM and Audio SOM to retain their functionality with the DK beyond the retirement date, will be made available before the retirement date.

I'd assume lack of traction is at least one of the reasons for the fast phase-out of Azure Percept. Another could be a reprioritization and reorg which moved some of the previously independent IoT teams at Microsoft under Azure. I asked officials if they'd say more about the reasons for the discontinuation of Azure Percept beyond the brief retirement statement. A spokesperson declined to provide more information beyond this additional statement:

"As the needs of our customers evolve, we regularly update our product lineup to best support them. From time to time, this includes introducing technical innovations and retiring products. Microsoft provides ample resources to assist customers, ensuring any transition is as seamless as possible."

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