What did we learn at Microsoft Ignite 2023?

Right now, there’s a whole load of journalists and influencers writing about what Microsoft announced at Ignite. I’m not a journalist, and Microsoft has long since stopped considering me as an influencer. Even so, I’m going to take a look at the key messages. Not the technology announcements – for those there’s the Microsoft Ignite 2023 Book of News – but the real things IT Leaders need to take away from this event.

Microsoft’s investment in OpenAI

It’s all about AI. I know, you’re tired of the hype, suffering from AI fatigue, but for Microsoft, it really is about AI. And if you were unconvinced just how important AI is to Microsoft’s strategy, their action to snap up key members of staff from an imploding OpenAI a week later should be all you need to see:

Tortoise Media‘s Barney Macintyre (@barneymac) summed it up brilliantly when he said that

“Satya Nadella, chief executive of Microsoft, has played a blinder. Altman’s firing raised the risk that he would lose a key ally at a company into which Microsoft has invested $13 billion. After it became clear the board wouldn’t accept his reinstatement, Nadella offered jobs to Altman, Brockman and other loyalist researchers thinking about leaving.

The upshot: a new AI lab, filled with talent and wholly owned by Microsoft – without the bossy board. An $86 billion subsidiary for a $13 billion investment.”

But the soap opera continued and, by the middle of the week, Altman was back at OpenAI, apparently with the blessing of Microsoft!

If nothing else, this whole saga should reinforce just how important OpenAI is to Microsoft.

The age of the Copilot

Copilot is Microsoft’s brand for a set of assistive technologies that will sit alongside applications and provide an agent experience, built on ChatGPT, Dall-E and other models. Copilots are going to be everywhere. So much so that there is a “stack” for Copilot and Satya described Microsoft as “a Copilot company”.

That stack consists of:

  • The AI infrastructure in Azure – all Copilots are built on AzureAI.
  • Foundation models from OpenAI, including the Azure OpenAI Service to provide access in a protected manner but also new OpenAI models, fine-tuning, hosted APIs, and an open source model catalogue – including Models as a Service in Azure.
  • Your data – and Microsoft is pushing Fabric as all the data management tools in one SaaS experience, with onwards flow to Microsoft 365 for improved decision-making, Purview for data governance, and Copilots to assist. One place to unify, prepare and model data (for AI to act upon).
  • Applications, with tools like Microsoft Teams becoming more than just communication and collaboration but a “multi-player canvas for business processes”.
  • A new Copilot Studio to extend and customise Microsoft Copilot, with 1100 prebuilt plugins and connectors for every Azure data service and many common enterprise data platforms.
  • All wrapped with a set of AI safety and security measures – both in the platform (model and safety system) and in application (metaprompts, grounding and user experience).

In addition to this, Bing Chat is now re-branded as Copilot – with an enterprise version at no additional cost to eligible Entra ID users. On LinkedIn this week, one Microsoft exec posted that “Copilot is going to be the new UI for work”.

In short, Copilots will be everywhere.

Azure as the world’s computer

Of course, other cloud platforms exist, but I’m writing about Microsoft here. So what did they announce that makes Azure even more powerful and suited to running these new AI workloads?

  • Re-affirming the commitment to zero carbon power sources and then becoming carbon negative.
  • Manufacturing their own hollow-core fibre to drive up speeds.
  • Azure Boost (offloading server virtualisation processes from the hypervisor to hardware).
  • Taking the innovation from Intel and AMD but also introducing new Microsoft silicon: Azure Cobalt (ARM-based CPU series) and Azure Maia (AI accelerator in the form of an LLM training and inference chip).
  • More AI models and APIs. New tooling (Azure AI Studio).
  • Improvements in the data layer with enhancements to Microsoft Fabric. The “Microsoft Intelligent Data Platform” now has 4 tenets: databases; analytics; AI; and governance.
  • Extending Copilot across every role and function (as I briefly discussed in the previous section).

In summary, and looking forward

Microsoft is powering ahead on the back of its AI investments. And, as tired of the hype as we may all be, it would be foolish to ignore it. Copilots look to be the next generation of assistive technology that will help drive productivity. Just as robots have become commonplace on production lines and impacted “blue collar” roles, AI is the productivity enhancement that will impact “white collar” jobs.

In time we’ll see AI and mixed reality coming together to make sense of our intent and the world around us. Voice, gestures, and where we look become new inputs – the world becomes our prompt and interface.

Featured images: screenshots from the Microsoft Ignite keynote stream, under fair use for copyright purposes.

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