Microsoft Ignite: three takeaways for telcos

At the Ignite Fall 2021 conference last week, Microsoft announced more than 90 upgrades to its cloud services. The company is clearly trying to reach telcos, evident from the number of event sessions with a telco angle. (See the list of don’t-miss sessions I shared a couple of weeks ago.) The main announcements didn’t specifically cater to our industry. However, there were some important takeaways. Here are my top three:

Takeaway #1: Metaverse

What: If Ignite were only a week or two earlier, Satva Nadella could have scooped the Metaverse! As it happened, his buddy Zuckerberg beat him to the punch, renaming his whole company Meta. Or maybe Nadella was just jealous and re-wrote his keynote to keep up. FOMO much?

But seriously, the Metaverse was the biggest topic of Ignite. Wondering what the Metaverse is? Read Matthew Ball’s now-famous blog post, The Metaverse: What It Is, Where to Find It, and Who Will Build It.

That post is from a couple of years ago, but the Metaverse is back, big-time, as the pandemic has forcibly shifted business away from the office and to Zoom, Teams, and other video conferencing and cloud collaboration tools. It’s like I tweeted the other day, the Metaverse for business could be kinda cool and it’s not that hard to be better than Zoom (or Teams). It didn’t take many weeks of the pandemic for people to ditch the Brady Bunch grid and start having meetings in the western-themed game Red Dead Redemption instead, traveling by horseback to meet colleagues around a virtual campfire. I know, it’s not quite Metaverse yet. But it’s the same general idea.

Nadella’s opening keynote (about 20 minutes in) hinted at great metaverse things to come – cool holographic people appearing in physical places where they aren’t, like a factory floor or office. But he also offered concrete details, like a graphic (22:30) that maps out Microsoft’s metaverse solutions and platform, showing how all the pieces fit together, and how it’ll eventually become a platform that developers can build on. Then he segued into Mesh for Microsoft Teams, which he says allows you to have a “shared immersive experience directly in Teams,” and which I’ll say seems like it’s just a way less-fun version of Red Dead Redemption.

What does it mean for telco? The focus on Metaverse is good news, in that it’s simply not possible without the network. Avoiding the Max Headroom effect will require super high bandwidth and super low latency. Telcos should get excited and get ready, because everyone is going to need your network and your edge.

The question to ask yourself is: Can you scale? If you’re on the public cloud you can. That’s where you’ll get the flexibility and scalability to support all the Metaverse applications across your networks. Your private cloud isn’t up to the challenge. Nadella said that “the Metaverse enables us to embed computing into the real world and to embed the real world into computing.” That’s going to take a hell of a lot of (your) network. And there’s only one way to get there: public cloud.

What are the other hyperscalers doing? It remains to be seen. Amazon, as the world’s largest cloud services vendor, will find a way to be involved, but hasn’t come out with announcements or formal responses to meta-month. But maybe it’s just biding time (or re-writing keynotes) for re:Invent. As for Google, I have to believe it’s thinking about it. Because remember Google Glass? I thought the famous flop had disappeared completely, and the consumer version has, but the company is still selling Enterprise Edition 2.

What I really want to know is if Amazon and Google will come up with better avatars than Microsoft’s legless, floating torsos. It’s weird, right?

Takeaway #2: Azure OpenAI Service

What: A huge benefit to switching to the public cloud is access to cutting-edge artificial intelligence (AI) solutions. Azure OpenAI Service is exactly that.

OpenAI was originally founded as a nonprofit, open-source organization with the mission to ensure that artificial general intelligence benefits all of humanity. The company’s first product is the API, which provides access to the innovative GPT-3 natural language platform, which performs a variety of natural-language tasks in many languages, including producing human-like text with a few prompts. It can write copy. It can parse unstructured text. It can summarize text. The list goes on.

Combined with Microsoft’s AI at Scale initiative, we’re looking at a great leap forward in how easily and quickly you can build and deploy natural-language AI in your organization’s OSS and BSS. It’s a lot simpler than building a data science team, sourcing the machine-learning data, and spending all the time to train the model. So, this is a very cool, very new thing. And the new Azure Cognitive Services provides access to it through the Azure platform.

Note that the service will initially be available by invite only.

What does it mean for telco? Next-level customer love! Telcos are infamous for their bad customer service, so there’s a big opportunity here. Better AI can help you deliver a better experience in the form of faster, more accurate answers to questions, an enhanced ability to identify problems, and better data for responding to and solving those problems. A higher net-promoter score and AI-powered services in your apps can seriously increase your ARPU and reduce churn.

Microsoft has already partnered with Telefonica to create the Aura “cognitive intelligence” service, as well as with Vodafone and other operators. (Hear more about it at 9:00 in my podcast from last October.)

What are the other hyperscalers doing? Google has Cloud Text-to-Speech and Cloud Speech-to-Text. Amazon Transcribe is the AWS solution that converts speech to text. But the GPT-3 platform is truly breaking new ground.

Takeaway #3: Developer tools

What: Microsoft announced lots of updates and new tools for developers: new short code and message support, increased interoperability with Microsoft Teams, more support for containerized apps, identity support, client-server connection support, updates to Azure DevOps services suite and Azure API Management updates.

Microsoft really gets the idea of platform, especially the part about getting developers to build on top of theirs. The company already did it with Windows. Developers already widely use Microsoft’s tools to create desktop, web, and mobile applications. And now the company is focused on making it easier to build cloud applications.

This is Azure’s main advantage over Google and Amazon. I don’t think Microsoft talks about it enough.

What does it mean for telco? Microsoft wants to be your cloud provider. It says it’s building a carrier-grade cloud. It’s creating the tools to make it easier for companies in every industry to make what they need to support and transform for the future – including telecoms. All of these low-code tools make app development so much easier and so much faster, so your engineers can drag-and-drop and copy-and-paste their way to integration with cutting-edge, industry-leading, external services.

What are other hyperscalers doing? Google and Amazon also want to be your hyperscaler of choice, which means they’re also working hard to deliver powerful developer tools. I wrote a blog recently about the hundreds of tools the Big 3 offer, and if there’s an offering from one, there’s a good chance there’s something similar from the others.

OK, so that’s two hyperscaler conferences down, and just one more to go! I’ll post my session picks for AWS re:Invent as soon as the full catalog is available. All this talk of the Metaverse has me wishing we could attend the next conference there. Or at least around a campfire in Red Dead Redemption . Pass the marshmallows already.

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