Windows 11

Licensing rules and options for the Windows 11 OS.

Windows 11

Licensing rules and options for the Windows 11 OS.

Microsoft Build 2023: What businesses need to know
AI, unsurprisingly, gets top billing at Microsoft's Build developers conference this year. But there are some other announcements that enterprises may find more applicable and compelling.
Stylized image of laptop with swirls indicating AI magic

Microsoft’s Build developers conference is happening this week, starting on May 23. This year’s event is “hybrid,” again, with attendees participating in person in Seattle or watching virtually. Unsurprisingly, there are lots of announcements around Microsoft’s Copilot AI assistance technology this week. But there also are other product and strategy reveals that likely will have more near-term and widespread customer impact.

Microsoft wants Build attendees to take away one big thing from the show: Copilots and plug-ins are here! (Except, in reality, they’re not -- other than in Bing and GitHub.)

Microsoft has been pre-announcing a range of Copilot assistants for just about every consumer and commercial product in its line-up since the start of 2023. The business-focused Microsoft Copilots which Microsoft now officially defines as “applications that use modern AI and large language models to assist you with a complex cognitive task” are in private preview for a (very) select few at this point. Microsoft still hasn’t said when they’ll be commercially available, how they’ll be licensed, or how much they’ll cost to use.

At Build, officials will continue to tout the productivity benefits of Copilots and the company’s decision to back the same plug-in standard that OpenAI is using for ChatGPT. The plug-ins we’ve seen demoed to date are almost all consumer ones, such as OpenTable and Instacart. But Microsoft is promising that corporate developers will be able to build their own custom plug-ins using Visual Studio and the Teams Toolkit for Visual Studio Code to provide users help with tasks such as processing contracts or managing corporate travel expense reports. Microsoft also is labeling Teams message extensions and Power Platform connectors as plug-ins, going forward. Officials said the 20 customers currently in the M365 Copilot Early Access program have access to more than 50 plug-ins from Microsoft, as well as Atlassian, Adobe, ServiceNow, Thomson Reuters and other vendors.

(I’m thinking that Microsoft execs are busily re-making the “Power House” Power Platform apps, which are customizable, template-like apps for specific business functions that we wrote about a few months ago, to fit into this Copilot/plug-in story. Maybe we will hear more on that this summer.)

Because no Microsoft event these days is complete these days without the announcement of EVEN MORE Copilots, Microsoft is bringing a Copilot to Windows 11(with a preview coming in June, assumedly to Windows Insiders) in the name of helping users navigate commands and work with multiple apps simultaneously. The Microsoft Edge browser is getting the Microsoft 365 Copilot. The newly announced Microsoft Fabric data platform will be getting a Fabric Copilot “soon.” Power Platform’s Power Pages Copilot is now in public preview and the Power BI Copilot for Data Analysis Expressions (DAX), announced today, is in public preview now, too.

Fabric, Azure Linux and Win32 Isolation (Oh, my!)

Enough AI smoke. Here are the other top announcements of potential interest to Microsoft business customers from Build:

Microsoft Fabric “Fabric” is the new end-to-end data and analytics platform Microsoft is unveiling at Build. It’s a combination of updated versions of existing tools, plus a few new ones, delivered in the form of Software as a Service (SaaS). The platform is built on top of a common data lake based on the open delta/parquet format, which Microsoft has dubbed “OneLake.” Microsoft’s goal with Fabric is to provide cross-suite integration. A bunch of the pieces of Fabric, including Data Factory; Synapse Data Engineering, Data Science, Data Warehousing and Real Time Analytics; as well as OneLake are in public preview now.

“Azure Linux”: Listen at Build for mentions of something called “Azure Linux” this week. We already knew that Microsoft has its own Linux distribution, called CBL-Mariner (CBL = Common Base Linux), but officials repeatedly have pointed out that Mariner is for Microsoft’s own internal use and not a commercial Linux distribution. Microsoft has disclosed previously that it used Mariner as the base for the Linux virtual machine that is in Azure Kubernetes Service (AKS) for edge devices. But until this week, officials have called this “AKS-Lite VM.”

When I asked about the name-change, I got the following statement: "Azure Linux is the commercial product for CBL-Mariner, and it is supported as a container host OS for AKS. Mariner (CBL-Mariner) as an AKS container host has been renamed to Azure Linux container host for AKS. Microsoft does not provide broad commercial support for Azure Linux as a server operating system," said Jim Perrin, Principal Program Manager Lead, Linux Systems Group. My interpretation: Mariner has graduated beyond an internal-use-only skunkworks project to more of a commercial Linux, even if limited. I'll be curious if Microsoft goes further in making Azure Linux a "real" Linux distribution at some point.

New Win32 app isolation technology: Microsoft previewed plans to add new Win32 app isolation technology to Windows 11 back at the BlueHat conference in April. This update will be in public preview on May 24 for both consumers and commercial customers. Microsoft is presenting this capability as a step on its journey to making Windows “adminless” in the name of security. Many Win32 “classic” apps don’t run with least privilege, and isolation could help contain security issues and reduce damage if an app is compromised. Win32 app isolation in Windows 11 will rely on the “Helium” container tech that lives on top of the existing registry and file system, which is used by the MSIX Windows app package format. Microsoft isn’t providing information on when this isolation capability will be available commercially or how it will be priced/licensed.

Even more Windows goodies: After a few years of making Windows an afterthought at Build, it seems Microsoft is making quite a few Windows-related announcements at the show this year. In addition to the Win32 app isolation announcement, Microsoft is showing off a new Dev home app (in preview) that will let developers more easily set up Windows as their dev machine with WinGet configuration, GitHub integration and more built in. Microsoft also is announcing officially “Dev Drive,” which is a new virtual hard disk (VHD) storage volume tailored for developers that is based on ReFS (Resilient File System). And Win365 Boot, the capability allowing Windows 365 users to log directly into their Win365 Cloud PCs and designate them as their primary Windows experience (with no interim steps required after the initial log in) is finally going to preview.

Microsoft Mesh and Teams avatars: Before it was all-in on AI, Microsoft was gearing up to hop on the metaverse train. The company gave its Mesh mixed-reality collaboration platform and avatars for Teams lots of promotional love in 2021 and 2022. Both technologies get a small nod at Build this year. Mesh is (finally) in private preview for those who want to build virtual experiences for town halls, employee training, onboarding, and virtual tours. And the avatars for Teams will be generally available for all Microsoft 365 Business and Enterprise customers in the Teams desktop app on Windows and Mac starting this week.

Entra External ID: Microsoft’s customer identity and access solution, Entra External ID, which Microsoft announced earlier this year, will hit preview this summer. (Entra is the brand for a set of services built on top of Azure Active Directory for identity management.) While Microsoft made Entra Verified ID generally available in 2022, allowing users to share proof of employment, education and similar personal information, the External ID component lets organizations employ an identity provider to manage their IDs and then manage access to apps with Azure AD or Azure AD B2C.

'Frontline' workers: Microsoft's next target for its Windows 365 Cloud PC service
Microsoft is readying a Windows 365 Frontline offering for a June release, according to its own roadmap.
A representation of Windows 365's promised boot-to-cloud feature

Microsoft is targeting June 2023 as its delivery date for a new Windows 365 offering called "Windows 365 Frontline." Microsoft posted a note about Windows 365 Frontline on its Microsoft 365 Roadmap site on February 10, stating it would be available worldwide for PC, Mac, mobile and web users.

Microsoft made its Windows 365/Cloud PC service generally available in 2021. Windows 365 is a cloud-based virtualization service that builds on top of and complements Azure Virtual Desktop. Windows 365 is for business users only at this point and costs anywhere from $20 to $162 per user per month based on cores, RAM and storage.

Frontline workers (sometimes also called "firstline workers") are "deskless" workers who are employed on the front lines in retail, healthcare, hospitality and other industries and are a big target for Microsoft’s subscription-based Microsoft 365 services. Microsoft officials claimed early last year that there were two billion frontline workers worldwide, representing 80% of the global workforce. Microsoft officials said they'd seen 400% growth (from some undisclosed number) in monthly active usage of its Teams platform among frontline workers since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic from March 2020 to November 2021.

The exact form the coming Windows 365 Frontline offering will take isn't explained in the roadmap entry. Will it be a new edition which will sit alongside the current Windows 365 Business and Enterprise variants? Will it be available as an add-on to Microsoft 365 subscribers? How much will it cost? I asked Microsoft, but a spokesperson would only say that Microsoft had "nothing to share at this time" about its own new roadmap entry.

The Windows 365 Frontline entry notes that the coming release is "designed for organizations to provide Cloud PCs for shift workers or part time workers that only need a Cloud PC for a limited amount of time each day or week."

My assumption is Windows 365 Frontline will be built on the "Windows 365 Boot" capability that Microsoft officials discussed in April 2022. Officials said this coming boot-to-cloud functionality would be better than initially booting Windows locally and then connecting to the cloud because it would allow users to pick up exactly where they were last time they logged in with Windows 365. They said that the boot-to-cloud feature would be configurable by admins using Endpoint Manager. And they described this feature as "a great option for frontline workers using shared devices."

The Windows 365 Frontline offering could also come with limited hours of availability, such as pool of hours the Cloud PC could be used in a given week, which could be more appropriate for a shift worker than salary-based “knowledge worker." This might give Microsoft an option to add a lower-priced Windows 365 line-up to its roster.

Windows 365 Boot was one of four new Windows 365 capabilities that company officials touted last year as examples of tight Windows and Cloud PC integrations.

Microsoft also announced and delivered the Windows 365 App which enables users to pin their customized Cloud Desktop apps to their Windows 11 taskbar and/or Start menu for easy access. They also talked up "Windows 365 Switch," which will allow users to move between their Cloud PCs and their local desktop just as easily as they currently can move between different desktops using the Task Switcher; and "Windows 365 Offline," which will allow users to work in their Cloud PCs even when disconnected from the Internet. They'll be able to reconnect and sync later without data loss, officials said. Microsoft hasn't provided any delivery timing for Boot, Switch or Offline, but these capabilities are likely to be delivered with a Windows 11 feature update (or maybe as one of its interim update "moments" before this fall) as these features require tight integration with the OS.

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