Windows, Azure and Teams tools


Satya Nadella, chief executive officer of Microsoft Corp.

Daniel Berman | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The coronavirus didn’t stop Microsoft from issuing a flood of news in its annual Build conference this week.

Now in its 10th year, Build is where the company connects with the millions of software developers who build applications for Windows, Azure and its other platforms.

More than 200,000 people registered for the two-day event, company spokesman Frank Shaw said on Twitter.

Microsoft needs to engage developers so they’ll keep building applications for its platforms and on its data center infrastructure. Because of the pandemic, this year’s conference was held entirely online, with several executives and engineers contributing to the live video feed from their homes.

Microsoft used the conference as an opportunity to bolster key areas, rather than to demonstrate next-generation technology or tapping celebrities to attract more attendees, as Facebook and Salesforce have done. Areas of focus included its Azure public cloud, the fast-growing Teams communication app, which is increasingly at the center of the all-important Office portfolio, and a forthcoming app called Lists.

Here are some of the most significant announcements:

A cloud for health care. Microsoft is setting off on a vertical-specific strategy to keep cloud franchises like Azure and Dynamics growing, starting with health care. The offering, which is available as a free trial for six months, will make it easier for health systems to quickly take advantage of industry-focused features that already exist in multiple products, including Teams. 

Fairer and more private AI. Microsoft is enhancing the Azure Machine Learning cloud service with open-source tools designed to make AI systems behave more fairly for people of different ages and genders, and make calculations without looking at the underlying information. In the recent years, people have criticized implementations of AI that lead to mistaken and embarrassing results, and the technology could be appealing to developers keen on preventing blunders like that.

Cloud supercomputer. Microsoft said it has built an Azure-based supercomputer for AI research company OpenAI, which it invested in last year. “As we’ve learned more and more about what we need and the different limits of all the components that make up a supercomputer, we were really able to say, ‘If we could design our dream system, what would it look like?’ And then Microsoft was able to build it,” OpenAI CEO Sam Altman said. The technology could help OpenAI more quickly arrive at research breakthroughs. Although Microsoft has not yet designed its own AI chips, unlike cloud rivals Amazon and Google, it now appears that Microsoft is capable of assembling compelling AI hardware, which could strengthen its reputation in that area. The launch of the project shows that Microsoft is willing to operate special-purpose equipment to meet the unusual demands of a single customer rather than offering simple least-common-denominator computing resources. There are no signs Microsoft intends to expose the supercomputer for wider use, though; the company said it’s exclusively available to OpenAI.

Chat for developers. Programmers typically work alone as they write code, but they’re increasingly pairing up to solve problems. Microsoft has previously released technology to enable team development work in its code-editing applications. Now, it’s rolling out tools so programmers can have text chats and voice calls inside the open-source Visual Studio Code editor, without getting distracted by switching apps.

Faster Teams development. Microsoft now has an extension developers can download for Visual Studio Code to accelerate the process of writing and releasing a third-party tool for Teams. Competing communication app Slack has a lively ecosystem of integrations, and the extension could boost the supply of integrations available for Teams, so that people can accomplish ever more in the app. Unlike Microsoft, Slack does not maintain a popular code editor.

Lists. When Microsoft releases a new stand-alone app called Microsoft Lists this summer, consumers and businesses will have one more reason to subscribe to the Microsoft 365 (formerly Office 365) productivity bundle. It’s more customizable than a task-management app like Microsoft To-Do or Atlassian’s Trello. Lists can display items in a variety of formats, and the Lists app comes with templates such as an event itinerary and an issue tracker. Like the Airtable service, it can neatly display images. Lists will be available in Teams, and it will be possible to turn an Excel spreadsheet into a List.

A new package manager. It takes time to find and install all the apps that you want when you’re setting up a new Windows computer. The Windows Package Manager, available in preview, provides a command-line interface to find, install, uninstall and update programs. Microsoft expects developers to use the product, but anyone can try it, so it could help Microsoft keep consumers happy with Windows. Technology news site The Verge said Wednesday that it’s “already better than the Windows Store.”

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