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Inspire 2019: Clear thinking in the desert heat

The 20,000-seat T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas is more often given over to Golden Knights ice hockey games and Lynard Skynard concerts than tech fests. But as I settled into my airconditioned seat ready to watch Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella go on stage, there was a sense of anticipation akin to a rock concert.

Microsoft's Judson Althoff

It was my first Microsoft Inspire and while the annual event is a big deal for anyone in Microsoft’s partner network, I wouldn’t have been alone in arriving in the sweltering heat of the Nevada desert with some nagging doubts in my mind.

In the run-up to this year’s Inspire, Microsoft had informed its global partner network that it was withdrawing a range of benefits for Gold and Silver partners, including internal use rights (IUR), which provide partners with the ability to use a certain number of Microsoft licenses for free for internal use.

This represents an amazing opportunity for partners to save money and get hands-on experience with the Microsoft technologies they sell and implement. Its removal would have had a very negative impact on Empired and Intergen.

A welcome U-turn

While Microsoft’s Corporate VP for One Commercial Partner, Gavriella Schuster had said that Microsoft could no longer afford to offer the benefits, the backlash from partners was swift and loud, culminating in a petition against the decision gathering over 6,000 signatures.

Microsoft wasn’t about to let the issue overshadow its flagship partner event. On the eve of Inspire, it reversed its decision and when Schuster opened Inspire the following day it was with an apology and an emphatic restatement of Microsoft’s commitment to the global partner network, which Schuster said the company will invest US$3 billion in this year.

You could sense the relief in the audience and the respect the move garnered. It demonstrated that Microsoft really listens to its partners, is big enough to admit when they make a mistake and is willing to act quickly. Still, it is unclear what the future of IUR is beyond full-year 2020. We all eagerly await news of Microsoft’s plans in this space.

With that weight lifted is was time to be wowed with a showcase of the cutting-edge technologies Microsoft is working on, which Nadella introduced with his usual understated charm.

Mind-blowing demos

The highlight for me was an incredible demonstration of Neural Text to Speech technology. Julia White, Microsoft’s Corporate VP of Azure Marketing, used a HoloLens device to project a hologram of herself into the arena.

That was impressive enough, the hologram looked exactly like her. But it was also able to speak perfect Japanese – in real-time. Instead of using a robotic voice, Julia’s hologram spoke using her voice, but with a native Japanese accent. It was an impressive blend of two powerful Microsoft technologies – Mixed Reality and Azure AI. It left me wondering at the types of applications they could be applied to some time down the track in our part of the world.

A second demo that impressed me involved using Microsoft technology to improve healthcare in the developing world.

Dr Raymond Campbell is a urologist treating patients in parts of rural South Africa where many of them can’t regularly get to hospitals and local clinics. Dr Campbell met this problem by inventing a medical backpack he takes with him on visits to patients. The equipment in the backpack can test for ten common diseases, such as HIV, TB, diabetes and hepatitis B.

The solar-powered backpack contains a tablet computer which connects to the medical measuring devices via Bluetooth. Data from the backpack is collected and uploaded into a MySQL database running on Azure. Test results are available in 20 minutes and displayed using Power BI in the patient’s home, through an app or simple SMS message. Previously, it would take a week to get the same information.

My father was a doctor for 40 years. Dr Campbell’s work gave me a real appreciation for how this technology can transform the healthcare industry, including in New Zealand and Australia where we also need to take care of isolated communities’ health needs.

You can watch the video replays of the Inspire 2019 keynote demos here.

Boosted identity management

The rest of Inspire, as expected, was filled with sessions updating partners on new features and improvements to Microsoft’s extensive product suite. The best session I attended at Inspire in this respect focussed on Azure Active Directory (AAD B2C), Microsoft’s business-to-consumer identity management service.

I’d attended sessions on the product in the past, but my impression was that it was still very new and had several rough edges. Nasos Kladakis, Principal Program Manager on the Microsoft Identity and Access Management Team, quickly dispelled that notion.

AAD B2C now provides the ability to completely customise the end-user experience. You can white label the solution and control the branding at every step with no Microsoft logo anywhere. You can decide what information to collect from the user and how to collect it to avoid user fatigue and abandonment of the sign-up process.

I took four key things away from that invaluable session:

1: AAD B2C is not restricted to consumer identities such as Facebook and Google. You can use B2C with corporate accounts such as an Office 365 Org ID.

2: AAD B2C does not require that you store your credentials in the cloud. Cloud reluctant customers and customers who work in highly regulated industries can store credentials on-premises. But they can still take advantage of the full features of B2C.

3: Customers with a legacy authentication solution can adopt AAD B2C gradually. There is no need to perform a “big bang” migration. You can migrate identities from a legacy system to B2C “on the fly” when the user next authenticates.

4: The largest client of AAD B2C has 450 million users. But the service can scale beyond one billion users if required.

I see huge scope for helping our customers apply this versatile and scalable identity management solution and credit must go to Nasos for injecting some humour into what could have been a rather dry presentation.

Proud to be a partner

Away from the bustle of the Vegas strip, I was proud to accept a Nintex Partner Award, which saw the Empired Group (of which Intergen is its New Zealand operation) recognised for business excellence in the APAC region.

There is a long history that ties Empired to Nintex, an industry leader in process management, automation and optimization, so it was a great honour to receive the award.

Las Vegas is a colourful and memorable place at the best of times, but the numerous keynotes, presentations and meetings left me truly inspired. The potential to apply these existing and new technologies to meet the needs of Empired and Intergen’s customers across the region is great and as I headed back to the relative cool of my base in Seattle, I was thinking of how to do exactly that.


This blog is part of the #Inspire series. For more experts' insights, clients' experiences, click the banner.

#Inspire blog series

Posted by: Harris Schneiderman, Regional Sales Manager, Seattle | 05 August 2019

Tags: #Inspire

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