Microsoft finally gives Teams what it needs to take on Slack: A free version

Ever since its introduction, Microsoft’s Teams—a collaboration tool for chatting, sharing documents, video, and voice calling—has had one major competitor: Slack. Teams was clearly built as a response to Slack’s growing enterprise presence, with its model of IRC-style chatrooms winning hearts and minds.

Thus far, Microsoft has pushed Teams’ extensive integration with the company’s other products—Office, Skype, SharePoint—as its major distinguishing feature, but Slack has had one important capability that Teams has lacked. The starting price for Slack is free. The free version has all sorts of limitations—only 5GB of files can be saved, only 10,000 lines of chat can be viewed, and integrations with other applications are restricted—but it’s enough to get a sense of how the product works and how it can fit in an organization. The free version also means that Slack has found a role in various non-paying spheres, such as open source development, serving a similar role to the one once served by IRC.

Today, Microsoft is offering a free version of Teams that anyone can sign up to and use. Like the free Slack tier, there are limitations to the free Teams, but Microsoft has picked a very different set of restrictions than Slack’s. There’s no 10,000 message limit—even free users can access and search all their chat history—and the data limits are substantially higher, at 10GB plus 2GB per person. Free Teams supports group voice and video calling, too; Slack’s free tier is restricted to 1:1 video calls. Application integrations are unrestricted, and Microsoft is of course continuing to promote the tie-ins with the online versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote.

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Microsoft launches new wide-area networking options for Azure

Microsoft is launching a few new networking features today that will make it easier for business to use the company’s Azure cloud to securely connect their own offices and infrastructure using Azure and its global network.

The first of these is the Azure Virtual LAN service, which allows businesses to connect their various branches to and through Azure. This basically works like an airline hub and spoke model where Azure becomes the central hub that all data between branches flows through. The advantage of this, Microsoft argues, is that it allows admins to manage their wide-area networks from a central dashboard and, of course, that it makes it easy to bind additional Azure services and appliances to the network. And with that, users also get access to all of the security services that Azure has to offer.

One new security service that Microsoft is launching today is the Azure Firewall, a new cloud-native security service that is meant to protect a businesses virtual network resources.

In addition to these two new networking features, Microsoft also today announced that it is expanding its Azure Data Box service, which is basically Microsoft’s version of the AWS Snowball appliances for moving data into the cloud by loading it onto a shippable appliance, to two new regions: Europe and the United Kingdom (and let’s not argue about the fact that the U.K. is still part of Europe). There is also now a ‘Data Box Disk’ option for those who don’t need to move petabytes of data. Orders with up to five of those disks can hold up to 40 terabytes of data and are currently in preview.

Microsoft speeds up its Azure SQL Data Warehouse

Microsoft’s Azure SQL Data Warehouse, the company’s cloud-based database service for big data workloads, is getting yet another speed bump today. A few months ago, the company sped up the service with the general availability of its second-generation compute-optimized tier and today it’s doubling its query performance thanks to the launch of its new instant data movement technology.

Raghu Ramakrishnan, Microsoft’s CTO for Azure Data, tells me that instant data movement is the result of the company’s decades-long investments in database technology. “Given the fact that we’ve been doing data management for decades now, we can marry data storage and management,” he noted and stressed that I/O bandwidth tends to be a major bottleneck for many of the analytics workloads that Microsoft’s customers use SQL Data Warehouse for. In a distributed system like a data warehouse, moving data becomes a problem — one that is typically managed by yet another layer in the system. “In these systems, when you take simple standard operations like joins, if the tables are not already nicely organized by an attribute, you have to sort on one or the other, so you have to move data across the network at a rapid clip, Ramakrishnan said.

To do away with this bottleneck, Microsoft has now integrated the data movement layer right into the SQL Server engine that powers its data warehousing service. Thanks to this, every SQL Server node can now create intermediary results and move the data as necessary.

Never shy to compare its services to its competitors, Microsoft also notes that Azure SQL Data Warehouse can support up to 128 concurrent queries now, compared to the 50 that Amazon Redshift is currently limited to.

Microsoft wants to make you a better team player by nudging you into submission

Microsoft announced a number of new tools for its MyAnalytics tool for Office 365 users today that are geared toward giving employees more data about how they work, as well as ways to improve how teams work together. In today’s businesses, everybody has to be a team player, after all, and if you want to bring technology to bear on this, you first need data — and once you have data, you can go into full-on analytics mode and maybe even throw in a smidge of machine learning, too.

So today, Microsoft is launching two new products: Workplace Analytics and MyAnalytics nudges. Yes, Office 365 will now nudge you to be a better team player. “Building better teams starts with transparent, data-driven dialog—but no one is perfect and sticking to good collaboration habits can be challenging in a fast-paced job,” Microsoft’s Natalie McCullough and Noelle Beaujon, using language only an MBA could love, write in today’s announcement.

I’m not sure what exactly that means or whether I have good collaboration habits or not, but in practice, Office 365 can now nudge you when you need more focus time as your calendar fills up, for example. You can block off those times without leaving your Inbox (or, I guess, you could always ignore this and just set up a standing block of time every day where you don’t accept meetings and just do your job…). MyAnalytics can also now nudge you to delegate meetings to a co-worker when your schedule is busy (because your co-workers aren’t busy and will love you for putting more meetings on your calendar) and tell you to avoid after-hours emails as you draft them to co-workers so they don’t have to work after hours, too (that’s actually smart, but may not work well in every company).

With this new feature, Microsoft is also using some machine learning smarts, of course. MyAnalytics was already able to remind you of tasks you promised to co-workers over email, and now it’ll nudge you when you read new emails from those co-workers, too. Because the more you get nudged, the more likely you are to finish that annoying task you never intended to do but promised your co-worker you would do so he’d go away.

If you’re whole team needs some nudging, Microsoft will also allow the group to enroll in a change program and provide you with lots of data about how you are changing. And if that doesn’t work, you can always set up a few meetings to discuss what’s going wrong.

These new features will roll out this summer. Get ready to be nudged.

Microsoft Teams gets a free version

Microsoft opened up the news floodgates this morning, in the kick off to its annual Inspire event in Vegas. One of the more compelling announcements of the bunch is the addition of a free version of Teams.

The Slack competitor has been kicking around in some form or other since late-2016, but the $60 a year fee has likely made it a bit of a nonstarter for smaller businesses. After all, it’s Slack’s free tier that helped the work chat app gain so much traction so quickly. A free version makes a lot of sense for Microsoft.

Signing users up for Teams is way to get more feet into the door of its application ecosystem, which was once ubiquitous in offices. Once they’ve download teams, workplaces will be hooked into the Microsoft 365 suite.

The free tier actually brings a fair bit of the app to up to 300 people per workplace. Here’s the full rundown of features per Microsoft,

  • Unlimited chat messages and search.
  • Built-in audio and video calling for individuals, groups, and full team meetups.
  • 10 GB of team file storage plus additional 2 GB per person for personal storage.
  • Integrated, real-time content creation with Office Online apps, including built-in Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote.
  • Unlimited app integrations with 140+ business apps to choose from—including Adobe, Evernote, and Trello.
  • Ability to communicate and collaborate with anyone inside or outside your organization, backed by Microsoft’s secure, global infrastructure.

The company’s done a good job hooking in enterprise customers, but as it notes, SMBs constitute 90+ percent of businesses globally, so that’s a whole lot more devices to tap into. The free tier is available in 40 languages starting today.

Microsoft Whiteboard is available to all on Windows, iOS version coming soon

Microsoft previewed White Board last May, alongside the new Surface Pro, eventually rolling it out in public beta in December. The collaboration app just went live to all Windows users, as part of the deluge of announcements tied to the upcoming Inspire conference.

Whiteboard is kind of digital sibling to Microsoft’s large Surface Hub display. The company describes it as an “infinite canvas,” in a phrase cribbed from comics theorist, Scott McCloud. With the drawing app, users can sketch out notes and images with a finger, keyboard or compatible pen.

The app lets teams collaborate remotely, automatically uploading the final project to the cloud. The company says it’s also added a bunch of new features based on feedback during the beta, including, “text notes, the ability to add and manipulate images, enhancements to shape and table recognition, accessibility improvements, compliance with various global standards, and more.”

In addition to Windows availability, it will also be arriving on iOS and as a browser based version some time in the near future.

Snowflake expands beyond Amazon to Azure cloud

Snowflake, the cloud data warehouse, announced a partnership with Microsoft today to expand their offering to the Azure cloud. The new product is still in Preview for now.

Given that Snowflake CEO Bob Muglia worked at Microsoft for more than 20 years, it’s certainly not surprising that Microsoft is the company’s second partner after working with only Amazon since its inception. But Muglia says it was really about seeing customer demand in the marketplace more than any nostalgia or connections at Microsoft. In fact, he says the company is on boarding one to two new Azure customers a day right now.

The plan is to open up a private preview today, then become generally available some time in the fall when they work out all of the kinks involved with porting their service to another provider.

The partnership didn’t happen overnight. It’s been developing for over a year and that’s because Muglia says Azure isn’t quite as mature as Amazon in some ways and it required some engineering cooperation to make it all work.

“We had to work with Microsoft on some of the things that we needed to make [our product] work [on their platform], particularly around the way we work with with Azure Blob Storage that we really had to do a little differently on Azure. So there are changes we needed to make internally in our product to make it work,” he explained.

Overall though the two company’s engineers have worked together to solve those issues and Muglia says that when the Azure version becomes generally available in the Fall, it should basically be the same product they offer on Amazon, although there are still some features they are trying to make work on in the Preview. “Our goal is to have literally the same product on Azure as on Amazon, and we are very confident we’ll get there with Microsoft,” he said.

For Snowflake of course, it represents a substantial market expansion because now they can sell to companies working on Azure and Amazon and that has opened up a whole new pipeline of customers. Azure is the number two cloud provider behind Amazon.

The interesting aspect of all this is that Amazon and Microsoft compete in the cloud of course, but Snowflake is also competing with each cloud provider too with their own product. Yet this kind of partnership has become standard in the cloud. You have to work across platforms, then compete where it makes sense.

“Almost all of the relationships that we have in the industry, we have some element of competition with them, and so this is a normal mode of operation,” he said.

Latest Windows 10 update now deemed good enough for business users

Corporate users should now be unafraid to roll out the Windows 10 April 2018 Update, aka Version 1803, to their fleets, according to Microsoft.

Over the course of Windows 10’s life, the precise terminology that Microsoft uses to denote this has changed. Originally, there was a split between the “Current Build”—the latest stable update with the latest monthly patch—and the “Current Build for Business.” This latter label was used to denote the version that Microsoft felt was sufficiently tested and stabilized as to be suitable to roll out to conservative corporate fleets. While the Current Build would be updated to each new major update as soon as it was released, the Current Build for Business typically lagged by a few months.

The terminology has now changed a bit; what was once “Current Build” is now “Semi-Annual Channel (targeted),” and “Current Build for Business” is now “Semi-Annual Channel.” But the effect is the same: as of yesterday’s patch, which brings Windows 10’s build number up to 17134.165, Version 1803 is now blessed with the Semi-Annual Channel label.

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