It’s been a busy year for Microsoft. Over the past twelve months, the company has made significant progress in projects spanning everything from artificial intelligence (AI) to sustainability. Here’s our roundup of the top seven ways we believe the company has made its mark in 2017:
Enabling digital transformation
Digital transformation has been at the crux of Microsoft’s strategy over the last twelve months, allowing organisations to improve their internal processes as well as better target new and existing customers.
“The opportunity to think and operate like a digital company is disrupting markets, shaping growth, and providing the catalyst for new business models, products, services, and experiences,” Townes-Whitley told us in our Autumn 2017 cover story.
“This is not just a theory or a prediction; we are currently navigating our own digital transformation. Before we could help our customers adopt this new model, we had to learn it ourselves,” Townes-Whitley said.
The company’s digital transformation has proved so powerful that Microsoft has put it at the centre of its mission to empower every person and organisation on the planet to achieve more. “We are focused on nothing less than changing the world,” Townes-Whitley added.
Back in July, Microsoft outlined its plans to use AI technologies to address some of society’s most fundamental challenges.
Eric Horvitz, technical fellow and director at Microsoft Research Labs, spoke about AI for Earth, which uses the technology to help tackle some of the biggest environmental challenges of our time. Microsoft is investing more than US$2 million to help tackle issues related to water, agriculture, climate change and biodiversity across the world.
Meanwhile Emma Williams, general manager at Bing, announced an Ethical Design Guide for AI product development. This involves looking at how the technology can be used to best effect for people’s needs and wants.
“In a world where computers can talk to people… they must talk to us in a way we can understand, and be sympathetic and empathetic,” Williams said. “Microsoft is focused on man and machine working together. We understand the natural fears that arise as technology advances, but Microsoft sees humans as the heroes of this story. They are at the centre of everything we do.”
Microsoft also introduced a number of updates to Microsoft Cognitive Services, a collection of services that enables developers to easily add intelligent features – such as emotion and sentiment detection, vision and speech recognition, knowledge, search and language understanding – into their applications.
“We are living in a golden age of AI advances,” Harry Shum, executive vice president of Microsoft’s AI and Research Group, said. “We as a technology company have the chance to channel all those innovations into tools that help people do their jobs better and more efficiently, and that solve some of the world’s toughest challenges.”
Putting security first
Following the WannaCry ransomware attack in May, Brad Smith, president and chief legal officer at Microsoft, emphasised the importance of cybersecurity and called for a new ‘Digital Geneva Convention’ committing governments to defending and protecting civilians from state-sponsored cyber-attacks.
“The future of cybersecurity on the internet will require many steps by many people,” Smith said. “We will need to continue to look to tech companies to act proactively to strengthen defences and work closely with customers. We need governments to act together, both to adhere to current international norms and create new law to fill in the gaps. The world needs a ‘Digital Geneva Convention’, as well as many additional steps to move us towards creating a more secure world.”
In October, Microsoft announced security firm Symantec is using Microsoft Azure cloud to help deliver its Norton products to over 50 million people and families.
The firm chose the Microsoft cloud as part of an initiative to adopt hybrid cloud strategies that support its business, protect company and customer data, and increase operational efficiencies.
“Our focus is helping organisations, governments and people secure their most important data, wherever it lives,” said Sheila Jordan, Symantec senior vice president and CIO. “The cloud is key to our strategy to accelerate innovation internally, streamline operations, and ultimately protect and empower our customers in the digital age. Microsoft has been a strong partner and has helped us to painlessly execute our strategy, far exceeding its commitment to ensure our success.”
Earlier this month, Microsoft also announced the availability of Office 365 Advanced Threat Protection for SharePoint, OneDrive, and Microsoft Teams.
“Security and compliance is an ongoing process, not a steady state. It is constantly maintained, enhanced and verified by highly-skilled, experienced and trained personnel,” said Bill Baer, Microsoft’s senior product marketing manager. “We strive to keep software and hardware technologies up to date through robust processes. To help keep Office 365 security at the top of the industry, we use processes such as the Security Development Lifecycle; we also employ techniques that throttle traffic and prevent, detect, and mitigate breaches.”
Broadening the use of mixed reality
It’s also been a great year for Microsoft’s mixed reality product HoloLens.
In September, global car manufacturer Ford announced that it was expanding its use of Microsoft’s HoloLens virtual reality solution following a successful pilot.
Lorraine Bardeen, general manager of Microsoft HoloLens and Windows Experiences, said the solution will be used further at the Ford Design Center to improve creativity, collaboration and time to market.
“Ford is embracing the digital transformation of the modern workplace across the company to make people’s lives better in vehicles today while exploring evolving mobility solutions such as autonomous vehicles of tomorrow,” Bardeen said. “Design will become an even more important differentiator in this exciting time and HoloLens and mixed reality are seen as key to standing out.”
Ford’s announcement was followed by the news in November that Microsoft partnered with Econocom and Bechtle to expand distribution HoloLens in Europe.
“Mixed reality is still in its early stages but already it’s poised to revolutionise a number of uses in the professional world. Joining forces with Microsoft, who are precursors of this technology, will enable us to help our clients keep right up to date with these new uses,” said Bruno Grossi, executive director of French tech firm Econocom Group.
Success in sustainability
2017 saw Microsoft make some significant commitments around sustainability.
In November the company made a pledge to reduce its carbon emissions by 75%. Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president and chief legal officer, said the company will do this by 2030, against a 2013 baseline. “We’ll do this through continued progress against our carbon neutrality and renewable energy commitments, as well as investments in energy efficiency,” he explained.
The company also promised to enhance the sustainability of its data centres by pursuing the US Green Building Council’s (USGBC) LEED Gold certification.
The organisation will also be participating in the USGBC’s LEED volume programme. LEED is the most widely-used system for rating how green a building is, and Microsoft is collaborating with USGBC to create a standardised set of design and anticipated performance criteria for its data centres.
“By building our new owned data centres and certifying our existing owned data centres to this standard, we expect to save energy, water, resources, generate less waste and support human health,” said Christian Belady, general manager of Microsoft Cloud Infrastructure and Operations. “And we are proud to pave the way for other data centre providers to do the same, by using this more efficient model for achieving LEED Gold.”
Microsoft also signed a number of wind energy deals in 2017, including one in the Netherlands with electricity producer Vattenfall, two in Wyoming, US and a partnership with General Electric in Ireland.
In August Microsoft exceeded its goal to meet US$20 billion in commercial cloud annualised revenue run rate.
Judson Althoff, Microsoft’s executive vice president for Worldwide Commercial Business, said: “This exciting milestone represents our continued delivery of new cloud technologies and our customers’ digital innovation.”
“Across major industries — from finance and energy sector to retail and professional sports — organisations are betting on Microsoft to help them transform their customers’ experiences, employee productivity, operations and products. In fact, 96% of Fortune 500 companies have at least one of our cloud offerings, and 90% have at least two,” said Althoff.
Expanding the use of blockchain
It was back in March that Microsoft joined the world’s most advanced enterprise and startup blockchain innovators in the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance (EEA) to build, promote, and broadly support Ethereum-based technology best practices, standards, and a reference architecture, EntEth 1.0.
Since then, the company has invested significantly in expanding the use of blockchain. In June, for example, Microsoft joined Accenture and Avanade to develop a blockchain and biometric solution to support ID2020, a global public-private partnership dedicated to solving the challenges faced by 1.1 billion people worldwide who do not have an official identity.
Then in August Microsoft announced the Coco Framework – a first-of-its-kind blockchain service for companies that can handle more than 1,600 transactions per second – much faster than current networks.
JP Morgan Chase, the global bank, technology group Intel and database specialists R3 have agreed to start using the Coco Framework in conjunction with their own blockchain ledger platforms.
“Blockchain is a transformational technology with the ability to significantly reduce the friction of doing business,” said Mark Russinovich, Microsoft’s chief technology officer for Azure. “Microsoft is committed to bringing blockchain to the enterprise. We have listened to the needs of our customers and the blockchain community and are bringing foundational functionality with the Coco Framework. Through an innovative combination of advanced algorithms and trusted execution environments, like Intel’s Software Guard Extensions or Windows Virtual Secure Mode, we believe this takes the next step toward making blockchain ready for business.”
And in September, Microsoft announced a collaboration with industry partners, including professional services firm EY and blockchain software provider Guardtime, to create the world’s first blockchain platform for marine insurance.
The platform, powered by Microsoft Azure, connects clients, brokers, insurers and third parties to distributed common ledgers that capture data about identities, risk and exposures, and integrates this information with insurance contracts.