All posts by Keumars Afifi-Sabet

Microsoft touts ‘enhanced AI’ features for Dynamics 365

Keumars Afifi-Sabet

21 Feb, 2020

Microsoft has unveiled an operations-centric module for its Dynamics 365 suite of enterprise resource planning (ERP) and customer relationship management (CRM) applications, on top of enhanced AI capabilities.

Customers are being promised smarter AI-powered business insights in 2020, with additional technology powering new features such as forecasting in Dynamics 365’s Sales and Finance Insights apps. A preview for these features is expected to be released in May.

This is included in a package of 400 new and updated features set to be rolled out over the course of this year as part of Microsoft’s 2020 release wave 1, which spans features touted to be released from April through September.

The Dynamics 365 Project Operations tool, slated for an October 2020 release, is being launched to support project-oriented teams managing data across different data silos to stitch their systems together.

The application connects cross-functional project teams, with Microsoft claiming that it offers the visibility needed to reduce the barriers to efficient working that currently exist.

“The predictive forecasting capabilities enable the proactive decision-making needed to meet sales goals,” Microsoft’s president for business applications James Phillips said, of the suite’s enhanced AI capabilities.

“Dynamics 365 does this by extracting patterns from customer relationship management (CRM) data, current and historical leads, won or lost opportunities, contacts, accounts, customer interactions such as emails and calls, and more data sources, and then projecting these patterns into the future.”

Updates to Microsoft’s customer data platform, meanwhile, aim to help organisations struggling to give their customers a personalised experience. These struggles are largely attributable to disconnected systems and data silos that can’t join together to give a holistic view of the customer journey across websites, purchases, service calls, and app usage.

The company is introducing first and third-party data connections to enrich customer profiles, that can be updated in real-time. These will be laced with insights from third-party data sources, including demographics and personal interest, in order to generate a rich picture of organisations’ customers.

Microsoft is also expanding the availability of customer insights to government cloud computing environments in order to improve the ‘citizen experience’, meaning public sector customers can better interact with employees and citizens.

Thales strikes key cloud partnership to support Fujitsu services

Keumars Afifi-Sabet

12 Feb, 2020

Fujitsu has agreed on a deal with Thales to integrate the security firm’s cloud and encryption services into its own portfolio to expand its security offerings to customers in Europe.

Thales’ Cloud Hardware Security Modules (HSM) and Key Management services will be adopted by the Japanese tech firm, with a view to bolstering its public key infrastructure (PKI) based services.

The security company’s Cloud HSM service, Data Protection on Demand, will be used by Fujitsu within its core security infrastructure in order to provide businesses with a more secure key management service.

The decision to opt for Thales technology lies in a need for Fujitsu to raise the level of security in its existing customers’ infrastructure and to remain compliant with regulations, the company said.

The security firm’s Cloud HSM service offered a cost-effective way to provide customers access to a Microsoft certification authority-based PKI regime.

“We’re always looking to ensure our customers have access to the very best security solutions on the market and this partnership with Thales offers exactly that,” said Fujitsu’s security offering architect, Petri Heinälä.

“One of our customers, a leading European pharmaceutical company, is already benefitting from our adoption of Data Protection On Demand. The client needed to shore up their key management practices, with increased healthcare regulations related to data protection, data privacy and audit controls.”

The partnership has also been strengthened with the launch of an enterprise data encryption service that uses Thales’ key management platform.

The companies claim this platform ensures effective compliance with data protection legislation while offering a secure means of encrypting sensitive business data.

This new service will form part of Fujitsu’s Data Protection suite of services and will be made available to customers across on-premise, hybrid and multi-cloud environments.

“Data protection is a clear priority for many businesses as they fight to prevent breaches and comply with increasing regulatory requirements,” said Thales’ vice president for encryption solutions, Todd Moore.

“Protecting core assets such as identities and data using encryption and PKI management should now be the minimum security posture for every organisation.

“It’s vital that managed services providers are able to respond to the changes quickly, efficiently and affordably, while meeting the security requirements head on.”

LinkedIn’s CEO steps aside after 11 years in charge

Keumars Afifi-Sabet

7 Feb, 2020

LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner is stepping down from his leadership role later this year, with the firm’s senior vice president of product Ryan Roslansky taking up the post from 1 June.

Weiner will step aside after 11 years in charge of the workplace social networking firm, after successfully growing the company and overseeing its acquisition by Microsoft. 

He will shift over to become the company’s executive chairman, a role that will involve supporting the leadership team more broadly.

His replacement, Roslansky, will report into Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella, just as Weiner has done since the firm was bought out in 2016 for $26 billion. The senior vice president of product, who has been at the firm for more than ten years, has overseen building LinkedIn’s influencer programme and publishing platform.

“While I’ve been thinking about the timing of this transition for some time, over the last year or so, several factors converged that led me to conclude now is the right time to make this change,” Weiner wrote in a LinkedIn post.

“For starters, our business has never been better, our culture has never been stronger, and our future has never been clearer. Additionally, my passion for initiatives beyond my day-to-day role as CEO has continued to grow. 

“Most importantly, after working with Ryan for nearly two decades, spanning two companies and countless roles, it’s become clear to me that going forward, his vision, drive and passion are exactly what the role requires.”

Weiner said that his role as executive chairman will allow him to hold a more top-level influence position and contribute to business strategy, product vision, and general advice, much in the same way that LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman performed the role.

Tomer Cohen, meanwhile, will take over from Roslansky’s current role as the company’s product lead, having helped to shape LinkedIn’s product ecosystem strategy.

“I’m taking on this new role of CEO because I believe deeply in what we are doing, how we are manifesting our vision, and where this company can go,” Roslansky wrote in his own LinkedIn post. “And the best part about it is that I truly believe we’re just getting started.

“Over my 10+ years at LinkedIn, I’ve been fortunate to work on every part of our product ecosystem – spanning the largest global professional social network and the six distinct businesses built on top of it. 

“To say I am humbled to lead this company into the future would be an understatement.”

LinkedIn has undergone several changes in the last few years, most recently migrating to Microsoft’s Azure platform in July 2019. The move involves shifting all workloads from LinkedIn’s own data centres to Microsoft’s public cloud platform, and will take multiple years to complete.

Microsoft has also previously outlined plans to integrate the social networking platform with its other products, namely Office and Outlook

Samsung and Salesforce plough millions into blockchain company

Keumars Afifi-Sabet

5 Feb, 2020

The investment arms of tech heavyweights Samsung and Salesforce have invested millions of dollars into the blockchain company Digital Asset as part of a Series C funding round worth an initial $35 million. 

Digital Asset, which has created the open-source smart contract language DAML, will use the funds to accelerate its adoption across several industries, and raise the level of integrations. 

The Series C funding was revealed in December, but the particular investors were not disclosed at the time. The $35 million will also be used to fund new products that are designed to improve the developer experience with DAML. 

Meanwhile, the company has recruited Susan Hauser, Microsoft’s corporate vice president of its worldwide enterprise and partner group, to its board of directors. Huaser had previously served as an advisor to Digital Asset while working with Microsoft, where she was in charge of partnerships across several industries in the public and private sector.

“Salesforce Ventures and Samsung joining our Series C financing round demonstrates the potential that technology giants see in DAML as the standard for smart contracts,” said Digital Asset co-founder and CEO Yuval Rooz.

“Appointing Susan Hauser to the board will help us capitalise on this vision. She brings us her unparalleled understanding of customer needs and exceptional experience building an enterprise business at Microsoft.”

DAML was open-sourced by the company in 2019, and is used to create smart contracts and software that automates business processes, as well as digitally verify and enforce agreements between several parties.

The company offers integrations of DAML with partner platforms so other companies can develop their own versions of the blockchain-powered technology.

“We strongly believe that Digital Asset’s model to embed DAML in partner platforms fundamentally changes the entire blockchain market,” said a spokesperson from Samsung Venture Investment Corp.

“Digital Asset has positioned itself for success in the blockchain space and we are pleased to help it achieve its vision.”

Salesforce has previously shown a great deal of interest in pursuing blockchain-related ventures. The software company previously connected a low-code blockchain platform with its customer relationship management (CRM) suite in May 2019 to open up a host of new services for its customers. 

The firm, together with Microsoft, also hopped onto an open-source blockchain venture run by the Linux Foundation in June. The Hyperledger research initiative expanded its reach with a host of new members, and was working on 13 projects using the Hyperledger blockchain at the time that Salesforce and Microsoft had joined.

Cisco WebEx will use voice tools to exploit ‘next frontier’ of data insights

Keumars Afifi-Sabet

29 Jan, 2020

Cisco’s flagship collaboration suite, WebEx Meetings, will introduce a voice assistant alongside transcription and translation tools to help customers mine insights from the voice data collected by the platform.

The added tools, powered by artificial intelligence (AI), will allow teams using the platform to streamline the entire meetings process, from automating aspects like minute-taking, and recording actionable items.

In addition to an Alexa-like voice assistant, real-time transcription tools will combine with advanced analytics so businesses can derive insights from the voice data that’s collected internally during all meetings.

This technology, which Cisco adopted following its Voicea acquisition in September last year, generates a word cloud following each meeting, and automates clips and videos that can serve as packaged highlights. The system, moreover, can be trained to learn corporate taxonomy specific to each business.

“Voicea users have reported saving more than six hours per week per user with more actionable and efficient meetings, and we believe Webex users will experience similar results,” said VP and GM for team collaboration at Cisco, Sri Srinivasan.

“We’re excited to bring this and other cognitive features to the 300 million users we already serve with Cisco Collaboration. This technology will fundamentally change how we are able to deliver massively personalised experiences and transform the way we work.”

The company says the added automation, particularly on action points and highlights that can be distributed to absentees or attendees to serve as reminders, will lead to more productive meetings overall. The engine can also determine information such as what the meeting was about and even the tone of the meeting.

The addition of aspects like live closed-captioning, meanwhile, will allow people to tune into meetings remotely while they’re in busy or noisy environments. All users, meanwhile, will be able to read back through a transcript that’s automatically generated to recap on certain points and even search this for particular information.

Cisco’s Webex assistant and voice tools feed into the company’s idea of “cognitive collaboration”, which essentially amounts to giving customers the right information, at the right time and in the right context. This is, as the company sees it, paramount to giving businesses the ability to gain insights from a new pool of data that’s been relatively untapped.

“We think of transcription and the capabilities around it … as the next frontier as information as a currency,” Srinivasan added. “It is the next data quorum – the largest data quorum – that we can create at Cisco collaboration.

“And when you think about 300 million users across calling, across meetings, starting to bring this information forward, we are able to bring that information – that data – and convert that into information. So there’s a number of capability sets that come; for example, analytics at the end of the meeting.”

The firm also moved to quash any concerns from businesses over whether Cisco might itself gather their voice data, suggesting that users can set their own privacy controls, and that all its services are GDPR-compliant. All data is also end-to-end encrypted, which customers can either manage themselves or give Cisco the keys to.

Cloud fuels IBM’s first quarter of growth since 2018

Keumars Afifi-Sabet

22 Jan, 2020

IBM has pinned its first quarter of growth for more than a year on the changing fortunes of its cloud division, following five  consecutive quarters of declining revenue.

The technology giant grew by 0.1% in the final quarter of 2019 versus the same period the previous year, recording revenues of $21.8 billion (£16.7 billion). This can be attributed to a 21% rise in total cloud revenue, which hit $6.8 billion.

Full year revenue for 2019 declined by 3.1%, however, dropping from $79.6 billion (£60.9 billion) in 2018 to $77.1 billion (£59 billion) last year.

“We ended 2019 on a strong note, returning to overall revenue growth in the quarter, led by accelerated cloud performance,” said IBM chairman, president and CEO Ginni Rometty in a statement.

“Looking ahead, this positions us for sustained revenue growth in 2020 as we continue to help our clients shift their mission-critical workloads to the hybrid cloud and scale their efforts to become a cognitive enterprise.”

Its open source software subsidiary Red Hat, for which IBM closed its $34 billion (£26 billion) acquisition last year, also grew by 24% year-on-year. The company now forms part of IBM’s cloud and cognitive software division, which in total grew by 8.7% to record revenues of $7.2 billion (£5.5 billion).

The firm initially submitted a bid to acquire Red Hat in late 2018 in order to enhance its hybrid cloud portfolio.

The move was largely seen as a shock and was branded a potential disaster by Puppet’s vice president of ecosystem engineering Nigel Kersten. However, these latest figures seem to prove the naysayers wrong.

“In 2019, we continued to invest in the higher-value growth areas of the industry and took bold actions – including several divestitures and a major acquisition – to position our business, which are reflected in our strong gross margin performance,” added IBM’s senior vice president and CFO, James Kavanaugh.

“After completing the acquisition of Red Hat, and with strong free cash flow and disciplined financial management, we significantly deleveraged in the second half.”

Elsewhere, in terms of IBM’s performance in the fourth quarter of 2019, its global business services division declined by 0.6%. Its global technology services, meanwhile, including infrastructure and cloud services as well as support services, dropped a sharper 4.8%.

IBM’s systems division, however, sustained an impressive growth of 16%, which translated to revenues of $3 billion (£2.29 billion). The main culprit was IBM Z, which alone saw a staggering 62% growth year-on-year.

Microsoft plots ‘carbon negative’ target for 2030

Keumars Afifi-Sabet

17 Jan, 2020

Microsoft has outlined a set of ambitious plans to remove more carbon from the atmosphere than it emits by the end of the decade.

By 2030, Microsoft is aiming to be ‘carbon negative’, in that the carbon it removes from the atmosphere outweighs the carbon emitted, including the activity of its wider supply chain.

This is in addition to a $1 billion climate fund to accelerate research and development into carbon reduction, capture and removal technology that doesn’t already exist today.

Moreover, Microsoft wants to continue the trend of lowering emissions while increasing carbon removal so that by 2050 it will, on paper, have removed all the carbon it has emitted since its foundation in 1975.

“While the world will need to reach net-zero, those of us who can afford to move faster and go further should do so,” said Microsoft president Brad Smith.

“We recognize that progress requires not just a bold goal but a detailed plan. As described below, we are launching today an aggressive program to cut our carbon emissions by more than half by 2030, both for our direct emissions and for our entire supply and value chain.

“While we at Microsoft have worked hard to be “carbon neutral” since 2012, our recent work has led us to conclude that this is an area where we’re far better served by humility than pride. And we believe this is true not only for ourselves, but for every business and organization on the planet.”

The industry stalwart is the latest in a string of companies, including Amazon and HP, to enter an arms race geared on reducing carbon footprints and embracing cleaner and greener technologies.

Amazon, for example, has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2040, while Google Cloud hit its 100% renewable energy goal in April 2018, powering its data centres and offices from renewable sources, including solar and wind. Salesforce, similarly, achieved net-zero greenhouse gas emissions the previous year.

HP, on the other hand, has committed to releasing routine sustainability reports that track its progress in its aims to reduce its carbon footprint. It has started to build many of its products with sustainability in mind, including the forthcoming HP Elite Dragonfly business 2-in-1.

Microsoft says it can achieve its own “aggressive” set of targets by first investing in nature-based initiatives, such as planting trees, with the goal of shifting to technology-based programmes when they become more viable.

The wider strategy, however, encompasses a set of smaller goals that Microsoft hopes to hit along the way to achieving its major targets for 2030 and 2050.

By 2025, for instance, Microsoft is hoping to shift to a 100% supply of renewable energy, while aiming to fully electrify its global campus operations vehicle fleet by 2030.

The firm is hoping to implement new procurement processes and tools to incentivise its suppliers to reduce their carbon emissions too, with these pencilled in for July 2021. For customers, meanwhile, Microsoft will roll out a sustainability calculator and dashboard that estimates emissions from Azure services.

Small businesses and innovators benefit from £100m government boost

Keumars Afifi-Sabet

15 Jan, 2020

Up to 100 million is being poured into researchers and small businesses as part of public sector efforts to invest in emerging technologies like artificial intelligence (AI).

The government’s Future Leaders Fellowships scheme will receive 78 million to be invested in 78 researchers to work on scientific and technological discoveries.

The remaining 20 million will be allocated to universities to support small businesses in rapidly-growing industries including AI, but also areas like clean growth and agri-food.

The 20 University Enterprise Zones (UEZs) will provide specialist support to small businesses and raise the level of knowledge-sharing between academics and entrepreneurs through frequent collaborations.

Through these UEZs, startups and small businesses will be given the facilities and expertise to help take their ideas through from a concept into the production and marketing stages.

These programmes will run across the UK in cities like Exeter, Falmouth, and Durham, not just London, with the government hoping this regional diversity will lead to several improvements to local economies.

These packages are part of the government’s UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) programme, which has seen various sums allocated to boosting aspects of tech growth in recent months.

The NHS, for example, this month received 69.5 million to fund four projects that involve developing therapies and technologies to treat genetic mutations that predicate life-threatening conditions like cancer and arthritis.

The UKRI programme even funded three R&D projects in Bristol with a 50,000 round of investment in March this year.

“UKRI is committed to creating modern research and innovation careers and our Future Leaders Fellowships aim to support and retain the most talented people, including those with flexible career paths,” said UKRI chief executive Professor Sir Mark Walport.

“These 20 University Enterprise Zones funded by Research England will be important focal points for collaboration in business-friendly environments, driving innovation and delivering benefits that will be felt across economies at the local, regional and national scale.”

The largest recipient of the 20 million UEZ fund is the University of Southampton, which will use a 1.5 million boost to fund the Future Towns Innovation Hub.

Other prominent projects include Oxford Brookes’ 1.2 million AI & Data Analysis Incubator, and Lancaster University’s Secure Digitisation UEZ.

Google testing biometric support for Autofill service

Keumars Afifi-Sabet

13 Jan, 2020

Google is toying with adding biometric support to its Autofill service on Android devices, deployed by users to automatically populate online forms and apps with personal and sensitive information.

Android code that hasn’t yet been enabled suggests Google’s built-in service could, in a future update, introduce an additional security layer involving fingerprint scanning or facial recognition, according to XDA Developers

The additional step would be handled through the ‘BiometricPromptAPI’, and would aim to resolve a security concern that has riddled Google’s auto-fill feature for years.

Autofill allows Android users to automatically populate forms and apps with information like passwords, addresses and credit card details, that’s synced with their Google account.

With Google’s Android 8 Oreo operating system, the inclusion of an Autofill API opened up support to third-party password managers like LastPass and Dashlane.

Using the equivalent of Autofill with these apps, however, generally requires users to pass an additional layer of security, like a quick fingerprint scan, to verify their identity.

Unlike these third-party apps, however, Google’s own feature has never demanded any additional form of authentication.

Attackers, therefore, could in theory gain access to a wealth of sensitive information – including financial data – by just bypassing the passcodes users set that allows access into their devices.

According to an APK teardown, biometric support options would be enabled within the Autofill settings portion of the Android settings menu, under ‘autofill security’. 

Users could then separately toggle biometric support on or off for payment information and credentials like usernames and passwords.

Biometric security is increasingly being seen as a reliable and secure alternative to traditional passwords and passcodes. The use of password managers, too, is often recommended by security experts as a means of improving cyber hygiene.

Microsoft, for instance, is a company that’s been highly vocal about the need to shift away from conventional passwords and for users to instead embrace biometrics as an alternative. Its chief information security officer Bret Arsenault has in the past called for online passwords to be eliminated entirely.

Embracing biometric support completely, however, presents its own security challenges, as the Biostar 2 data breach showed, with the nature of the biometric data taken for more permanent than usernames and passwords, which are stolen in most other breaches.

Teams unveils Walkie Talkie and off-shift access controls in frontline workers push

Keumars Afifi-Sabet

10 Jan, 2020

Microsoft has unveiled a set of new features for its flagship Teams platform to appeal to what the company calls “firstline workers” in industries like medicine, retail and manufacturing.

Over the course of 2020, the major Slack rival will introduce a suite of tools, including features like an in-app walkie-talkie, shared device sign-out and off-shift access controls for IT administrators.

The news marks the company’s second major push around ramping up functionality for frontline-workers, hinting that Microsoft is aggressively trying to fill what it sees as a gap in the market.

Microsoft had previously revealed simple sign-in for Microsoft 365 and Teams at its Ignite conference in November. The previously announced SMS sign-in tool would allow frontline workers to log onto Teams using an SMS authentication code obtained by entering their phone number.

Companies in the retail industry, in particular, with high staff turnover, could be the main beneficiaries from this feature, as well as from new tools like off-shift access controls and shared device sign-out.

“Companies at the forefront of digital transformation recognize how critical it is to enable all of their people with the right technology and tools,” said Microsoft’s corporate vice president of modern workplace verticals Emma Williams.

“That’s why, in industries like retail, hospitality, and manufacturing, there’s a movement underway to digitally empower the Firstline Workforce – the more than two billion people worldwide who work in service- or task-oriented roles.

“Giving Firstline Workers the tools they need requires companies to address unique user experience, security and compliance, and IT management.”

Allowing workers to sign in using SMS, for instance, would allow IT departments to avoid the need to set up fully-fledged user accounts for individuals who may not stay in the job for very long.

One of the most eye-catching new features, the walkie-talkie tool, is aimed at supplanting the need to buy additional equipment like radios, with workers able to conduct voice conversations over Wi-Fi and mobile data.

Microsoft sees this walkie-talkie feature as a means to help companies ditch “analog devices with unsecure networks”, with workers no longer having to worry about crosstalk or eavesdropping from third-parties.

Principal analyst for digital workplace at CCS Insight, Angela Ashenden, said frontline workers have become a growing area of focus for Microsoft, with this segment of the workforce historically unserved with any apps or tools.

“We’ve seen Microsoft target this group already with its collaboration solution Teams,” she said. “And with its mixed reality applications as part of Dynamics 365, and we’re now starting to see these two worlds coming together as the company focuses on key verticals like retail.”

“Today’s announcements of a new push-to-talk, walkie talkie feature in Teams will be hugely valuable for retail businesses, and SMS sign-in helps address the challenge of the high-turnover storefront workforce who aren’t always given an email address to use to sign in with (this is a feature we’ve also seen Workplace by Facebook rollout).”

The use of off-shift access controls, similarly, gives IT admins the capacity to limit worker access to the app on personal devices outside of working hours. This would ensure employees are not working longer hours than they’re supposed to and helps employers comply with employment regulations.

While these features don’t have fixed release dates, Microsoft has penned broad estimates that range from later this quarter, to over the course of the first half of the year. All capabilities are expected to have been released by midway through 2020 or earlier.