All posts by Bobby Hellard

Microsoft hits $1 trillion after Azure surge

Bobby Hellard

25 Apr, 2019

Microsoft’s cloud service Azure has grown 73% in the first quarter of 2019, helping the company to briefly hit a $1 trillion market cap for the first time.

The tech giant’s revenue hit $30.6 billion for the quarter, a 14% increase compared to the same period last year. Operating income hit $10.3 billion,  a 25% rise, and net income jumped 19% to $8.8 billion.

Perhaps what’s most notable about the quarterly earnings is that server products and cloud services revenue increased 27%, which the company attributed to Azure, it’s cloud computing service, which saw revenue growth of 73%.

“Leading organisations of every size in every industry trust the Microsoft cloud,” said CEO Satya Nadella. “We are accelerating our innovation across the cloud and edge so our customers can build the digital capability increasingly required to compete and grow.”

Microsoft saw growth in other services, such as LinkedIn, which had a revenue increase of 27%, and the Surface line of tablets and computers, which grew 21%. But it’s larger figures came from Azure, which has been a consistent source of growth of the company at a time when other divisions have struggled.

“Demand for our cloud offerings drove commercial cloud revenue to $9.6 billion this quarter, up 41% year-over-year,” said Amy Hood, the company’s executive VP and CFO. “We continue to drive growth in revenue and operating income with consistent execution from our sales teams and partners and targeted strategic investments.”

In the nine years since Azure’s release, the cloud platform has grown rapidly, despite failing to chip away at the market shares enjoyed by rivals AWS and Google Cloud. However, the overall health of the market has allowed Microsoft to enjoy significant gains regardless.

In 2018, Amazon raked in $ 3 billion, with a large portion of it coming from AWS. The company’s cloud division saw year on year profit growth of 45%, which continued a trend of growing by at least 40% each year. In the final quarter of the year, AWS brought in sales of £7.4 billion. The company’s first quarter results of 2019 are expected to be released next week. hack much worse than initially thought

Bobby Hellard

15 Apr, 2019

A hack that Microsoft said affected “some” of its users’ email accounts is much worse than initially thought, according to reports.

On Saturday, the company confirmed that some users of its email services had been targeted by hackers. But the issue is thought to be much worse than previously reported as the hackers were able to access email content from a large number of Outlook, MSN, and Hotmail email accounts.

The tech giant has been notifying users that the hackers were able to access their accounts for the first three months of this year after it discovered that a support agent’s credentials were compromised for its webmail services. This resulted in unauthorised access to accounts between 1 January and 28 March 2019.

According to Microsoft, the hackers could have viewed account email addresses, folder names and the subject lines of emails – but not the content of the emails or any attachments.

“We addressed this scheme, which affected a limited subset of consumer accounts, by disabling the compromised credentials and blocking the perpetrators’ access,” said a Microsoft spokesperson in an email to Tech Crunch.

However, in March –  before the company publicly announced the attack – an unnamed source told Motherboard that this abuse of customer support portals allowed the hackers to gain access to any email account as long as it wasn’t a corporate level one.

“We have identified that a Microsoft support agent’s credentials were compromised, enabling individuals outside Microsoft to access information within your Microsoft email account,” a Microsoft email posted on Reddit said.

It’s not clear how many users have been affected by the breach, or who the hackers are, but they weren’t able to steal login details or other personal information. As a cautionary measure, Microsoft is recommending that affected users reset their passwords.

“Microsoft regrets any inconvenience caused by this issue,” says the security notification. “Please be assured that Microsoft takes data protection very seriously and has engaged it’s internal security and privacy teams in the investigation and resolution of the issue, as well as additional hardening of systems and processes to prevent such recurrence.”

This latest security incident comes just weeks after a former security researcher pleaded guilty to hacking into Microsoft and Nintendo servers at Blackfriars Crown Court. And, Microsoft’s Windows development servers were breached for a number of weeks in January 2017, allowing hackers across Europe to access pre-release versions of the OS.

Interestingly, the time frame for this latest hack means it was going on while Microsoft’s Office 365 cloud-powered productivity suite suffered outages across Europe, with users reporting issues connecting to the cloud-hosted email servers back in January. 

AWS and Microsoft fight it out as the last JEDI contenders

Bobby Hellard

11 Apr, 2019

Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Microsoft have been selected to continue competing for the Pentagon’s cloud computing contract, the US Department of Defence said on Wednesday.

The highly sought after Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) contract is worth $10 billion and is part of a broad modernisation of Pentagon information technology systems that could take up to 10 years.

“I can confirm that AWS (Amazon Web Services) and Microsoft are the companies that met the minimum requirements outlined,” department spokeswoman Elissa Smith said in a statement to Reuters.

AWS, Microsoft, IBM and Oracle have been the front runners for the contract for a while, particularly after Google pulled out in October 2018, citing a clash of ethical values. But this latest decision is a snub to both IBM and Oracle.

Oracle has stayed in contention for the contract, despite repeatedly opposing its single-vendor specifications. In December, the cloud and database business launched a second bout of legal proceedings over the contract, filing a suit against the Department of Defence in the US Court of Federal Claims. The company’s original legal action was dismissed by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Oracle questioned the “propriety” of the procurement process after obtaining communications in which an official called colleagues voicing support for AWS rivals “dum-dums.” The tech giant alleged that two people who helped lead the JEDI project, Deap Ubhi, who served as JEDI project manager at the DoD, and Anthony DeMartino, chief of staff for the Deputy Secretary of Defense, were conflicted because of their relationship with AWS.

Ubhi, the lawsuit states, worked at AWS until joining the Defense Digital Service in the summer of 2016. He returned to AWS as general manager in November 2017.

The GAO has always maintained that the single vendor approach does not violate any laws and that for issues of national security the process is in the government’s best interests. IBM issued a similar legal challenge against the single-vendor process, which is said to violate procurement regulations, but that case was also blocked.

But with IBM and Oracle out of the picture, it falls to two of the industry’s biggest cloud providers, Microsoft and AWS, to battle it out.

Microsoft adds ‘Infinite Whiteboards’ to Teams

Bobby Hellard

20 Mar, 2019

Microsoft has added a host of features to its collaboration tool Teams, to celebrate the apps 2nd birthday.

The updates included customisable backgrounds, new security features and support for users who are hard of hearing or death. But, the most interesting addition is a camera-based feature that lets users share whiteboard content.

‘Infinite Whiteboards’ is a digital canvas for all participants to work on. It even allows for content to be transferred from a physical whiteboard by using a USB camera with Microsoft’s Intelligent Capture function. It allows one user to capture content from their whiteboard, re-focus or resize it, enhance the images and text so remote attendees can clearly see what is being brainstormed on the whiteboard. If changes are made to the board during the call, the content will still be seen by the remote attendees in real-time.

The feature will be available later in the year, but it’s one of a number of new functions for Teams that offer a different way to collaborate – making it more inclusive. Not everyone digests information in the same way and images may offer a better explanation to a complex project.

Similarly, Teams have also added support of those who are hard of hearing of death with live captions. These are essentially real-time subtitles for users to stay in sync with the conversation.

Also added to the service are secure private channels, where a user can restrict or enable participants to see certain channels without the need for creating separate teams. There is also ‘Information Barriers’ that limit who can see and share certain content, adding a layer of privacy and security to sensitive or private content.

“This week marks the second anniversary of the worldwide launch of Microsoft Teams,” said Lori Wright, GM of Microsoft 365. “Over the past two years, Teams has grown significantly in both new capabilities and customer usage, as the hub for teamwork that brings people together and fosters a culture of engagement and inclusion. Today, more than 500,000 organizations, including 91 of the Fortune 100, are using Teams to collaborate across locations, time zones and languages.

“Microsoft Teams is improving workplace collaboration by helping organizations move from an array of disparate apps to a single, secure hub that brings together what teams need including chat, meetings and calling, all with native integration to the Office 365 apps. Users can customize and extend their experience with third-party apps, processes and devices, giving them the tools they need to get work done.”

Microsoft unveils HoloLens 2 with a enterprise laser-focus

Bobby Hellard

25 Feb, 2019

Microsoft has announced HoloLens 2 at MWC on Sunday, the follow up to its mixed reality headset.

The announcement was made by Alex Kipman, a Microsoft Technical Fellow and the creator of the first HoloLens, who said that customers had been consistently asking Microsoft for three things to improve the HoloLens.

First, was for more immersion, people wanted to see more of the holographic landscape the headset presents. Second, was to make the device more comfortable, so users could stay emersed for longer periods of time. And third, was for it to have industry-leading value right out of the box.

Microsoft took this on board and improved the headset’s a field of view so that it’s more than double that of the first-generation HoloLens, approximating 2,000 pixels per eye while still maintaining the original’s pixel density. Ten-Point touch interaction with holograms, complete with the ability to sense hand movements with greater fidelity, has also been added. And, a new UI model that allows users to interact with virtual buttons and for holograms to follow the user.

Microsoft sees HoloLens 2 as an enterprise device for front-line workers and touted that the main changes such as the expanded field view, built-in AI tools and direct manipulation of holographs, will enable the headset to achieve this. The $3,500 device will be the front end for apps such as Dynamics Remote Assist, Dynamics 365 layout and Dynamics Guides applications. More importantly, Microsoft has said it will have an open approach to third-party developers.

While the news that the new device will allow more immersion and comfort will go down well with all, the integration with Azure and Dynamics will be the bigger plus for the enterprise arena.

“Microsoft’s new HoloLens device will bring the enterprise mixed reality market to its next level of adoption,” said J.P. Gownder, VP and principal analyst at Forrester. “The device itself solves many problems associated with the first model – from a vastly expanded field of view to better hand gestures. But it’s the integration with Azure and Dynamics that will empower developers to create powerful mixed reality experiences more quickly and cheaply.

“For the old HoloLens, editing the number of polygons forming a hologram into a manageable number was challenging and expensive. With cloud tools, developers can render an object in, say, 50,000 polygons on the device but also can render it in the Azure cloud with one million polygons visible to the user. This turbocharger’s the opportunity for creating holograms that workers can interact with during their daily jobs, helping them solve previously intractable problems.”

Slack adds new tools designed for developers of all abilities

Bobby Hellard

14 Feb, 2019

Slack is launching two new tools for developers to build apps within the business communication service without the need for in-depth coding knowledge.

The first is called ‘Block Kit’, which is a user interface (UI) framework to help developers do more with the information inside Slack. Its aim is to provide more flexibility and control over app message interactivity. It’s comprised of blocks, or stackable message components, that make it easy to control and prioritise the order of information.

The second tool is a ‘Block Kit Builder’, which is a prototyping tool for testing interactions as they appear in Slack so developers of all levels can see, understand and use the code. The Block Kit Builder tool has customisable templates that provide a foundational example for how to use blocks.

“The combined power of these blocks gives you the ability to deliver information in a clear, actionable way, enabling users to get more work done faster,” the company said in a blog post.

Within the Block Kit are five new smaller Blocks for sectioning, contextualising, imaging, dividing and actioning content.

In its blog, Slack highlighted some examples of developers using the tools. The first from a knowledge management platform called Guru helps people capture information as it’s shared with them in Slack. Using dividers, Guru’s “help” message now contains clearer calls to action, including an overflow menu that enables users to access advanced app functionality without cluttering their screen.

Guru example – courtesy of Slack

A second example from Optimizely, an experimental platform, has a Slack app that enables product and marketing teams to brainstorm, test and track digital campaigns. The context block clarifies which marketing campaign a particular message is referencing. In this case “Attic and Button.”

Optimizely in action – courtesy of Slack

However, what makes this interesting is that rather than offering the chance for experienced developers to build upon the platform, the Block Kit Builder will enable those less skilled or with little experience to quickly prototype their apps with customisable templates. These have the majority of the code already populated, offering a head start to budding developers.

Mumsnet reports data breach to ICO after problematic cloud move

Bobby Hellard

8 Feb, 2019

Mumsnet has reported itself to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) after a botched upgrade resulted in users accidentally logging into the accounts of others.

The parental forum believes that the breach was caused when moving its services to the cloud on Tuesday afternoon. The problem ran from 2pm Tuesday to 9am Thursday when the changes were reversed.

The breach concerns logins where for three days users logging into their accounts at the same time as another user could have had their account info switched. A user alerted the company to the breach on Wednesday night saying that they were able to login and view another user’s account.

Mumsnet said it is investigating its logs to determine the impact of the breach. Approximately 4,000 users were logged in during the three-day window, but Mumsnet doesn’t know how many of those were actually breached. The company has only been made aware of 14 incidents so far and those individuals have been notified of the issue.

According to the site, logging into another user’s account allowed them to see email addresses, account details, posting history and personal messages, but not passwords as they are encrypted.

No further incidents have been reported suggesting that it was the move to the cloud that caused the issues. Mumsnet founder Justine Roberts posted a blog post to apologise to users and notify them that it will report the breach to the ICO.

“You’ve every right to expect your Mumsnet account to be secure and private,” she said. “We are working urgently to discover exactly how this breach happened and to learn and improve our processes. We will also keep you informed about what is happening. We will, of course, be reporting this incident to the information commissioner.”

Mumsnet is not alone in this regard, as 2018 saw an unprecedented number of companies reporting data breaches, with almost 60,000 reported across Europe since GDPR came into force.

What’s interesting about the Mumsnet incident is it’s due to a fault during an upgrade to cloud services, highlighting the dangers of rushing digital transformations. To the company’s credit, it acted swiftly and took steps to shut down the problem, notify its users and involving the regulator.

Cloud computing dominates Amazon profits

Bobby Hellard

1 Feb, 2019

Amazon reported improved earnings on Thursday, raking in over $3 billion from 2018, but a large portion of this has come through its cloud computing arm, AWS.

The leading cloud provider’s profits grew 45% year on year, continuing an annual trend of growing by at least 40% each year. The cloud division has become crucial for the whole of Amazon for both revenue and profits.

“Amazon had a blowout quarter, led by its AWS public cloud division. AWS grew 45% year on year for the quarter at $2.3B,” said Patrick Moorhead, an analyst at Moor Insights & Strategies. “The AWS business is very profitable, generating $1.3B in operating income, more than all other businesses combined. I attribute this growth to its increased flexibility through ‘elastic’ capabilities as well as increased variability across EC compute capabilities.

“I will be interested to see how AWS’s recently announced AI PaaS and SaaS services fare as they appear quite compelling.”

Indeed, the PaaS offerings proved a big hit during the company’s Re:Invent conference in November. Lots of effort and marketing had gone into customisable services, such as the AWS Marketplace for machine learning and AI. This, combined with a whole host of new offerings and new partnerships, such as Fender guitars, Formula 1 and Zurich Insurance, painted a picture of good health for the cloud division of Amazon.

The company as a whole reported its third record profit in a row, thanks to a strong year for cloud computing, advertising and a successful festive period. The Seattle-based company’s 2018 profit of $3.03bn, or $6.04 a share, is up from $1.86bn, or $3.75 a share, on the same quarter a year earlier. Meaning revenue grew 20% to $72.38bn. Also providing a cash injection is its voice-controlled virtual assistant Alexa, and the Echo devices.

“Alexa was very busy during her holiday season,” said CEO and founder Jeff Bezos in a statement. “Echo Dot was the best-selling item across all products on Amazon globally, and customers purchased millions of more devices from the Echo family compared to last year.”

IBM to put Watson Workspace out to pasture over lack of adoption

Bobby Hellard

17 Jan, 2019

IBM is killing off its AI-powered collaboration tool Watson Workspace after it failed to “resonate” with clients, according to a leaked memo.

Watson Workspace is IBM’s answer to Slack or Microsoft Teams, but with AI capabilities. It provided a platform for shared workspaces, collaborations and even hosted third-party apps. But, despite having only been released in 2016 in beta, the app is being shut down by the 28 February, according to a memo seen by The Register.

“While there is no question that Watson Workspace is innovative and agile, it hasn’t resonated with clients or obtained traction in the marketplace necessary for IBM to continue forward with the service,” the memo states.

“Despite our best efforts and enthusiasm for these offerings, our decision to withdraw them aligns to IBM’s investment strategy, focused on delivering solutions that deliver measurable value to our customers and business partners.”

According to the document, IBM has already stopped taking new orders for Watson Workspace and will not be adding any new features to it. It’s reportedly working with business partners to create options for handling subscriptions and contracts once the end of service is officially announced. Business clients that have already brought into Watson Workspace will, from today, see a banner in the user interface of the service that will provide a timeline for moving off the service.

“We will also provide access to a tool that will allow you to download and save your conversations and content from Watson Workspace. Please plan accordingly to capture any content you’d like to retain as we work to sunset the service. This option will only be available for a limited time,” IBM added in the memo.

The Watson, or the artificial intelligence factor, on Workspace was called ‘moments’ and was used mainly to search conversation history or catch up on work chat after a break. Arguably, this was perhaps a poor use of Watson AI given its capabilities – it famously beat two contestants on the game show Jeopardy – and also nothing different from popular apps like Slack, which also has AI functions for the same things.

Google’s radar-based gesture sensor given the go-ahead

Bobby Hellard

3 Jan, 2019

Google has been given the green light by the FCC to push forward with a radar-based sensor that can recognise hand gestures, with the technology being pegged as a new way to control smartphones and IoT devices.

Project Soli, which is a form of sensor technology that works by emitting electromagnetic waves in a broad beam, was initially blocked due to concerns it would disrupt existing technology.

Radar beam interpreting hand gestures – courtesy of Google 

Objects within the beam scatter energy, reflecting some portion back towards a radar antenna. The signals reflected back capture information about its characteristics and dynamics, including size, shape, orientation, material, distance and velocity.

However, it’s taken Google a number of years to get project Soli going as initially its radar system was unable to accurately pick up user gestures and had trouble isolating each motion. Google attributed these problems to the low power levels the smartwatch had to operate on due to FCC restrictions.

The tech giant applied for a waiver from the FCC to operate at higher power levels, something that was initially protested by Facebook as it claimed higher power levels could interfere with existing technology. This dispute has been settled by the two companies and Google has been granted a waiver after the FCC determined that project Soli could serve the public interest and had little potential for causing harm.

The approval means that Soli can move forward and create a new way to interact with technology. Due to the small size of the chips, it can be fitted into wearables, smartphones and many IoT devices.

Carsten Schwesig, the design lead of project Soli, said his team wanted to create virtual tools because they recognised that there are certain control actions, such as a pinch movement, that can be read fairly easily.

“Imagine a button between your thumb and index finger — the button’s not there, but pressing it is a very clear action and there is a very natural haptic feedback that occurs as you perform that action,” he said.

Virtual button gif – courtesy of Google

“The hand can both embody a virtual tool and it can also be acting on the virtual tool at the same time. So if we can recognise that action, we have an interesting direction for interacting with technology.”

There is currently no indication as to when the company plans to roll out the new technology.