Company / division: Azure
I’m at Microsoft’s Build developer conference this week, and got a little preview of some of what’s being announced in a private session for analysts yesterday. Today’s day 1 keynote is focused on Microsoft’s broad vision for this year’s event and its cloud and AI business. Many of the things I cover most closely will actually be in tomorrow’s keynote, which will cover more of the consumer-facing parts of the business. But there were still several notable announcements today that are worth talking about, even on a site like this that’s more consumer tech-focused. Firstly, it’s worth noting CEO Satya Nadella’s philosophical intro, which emphasized the ethical and other responsibilities tech companies have as well as the limits of tech in solving the world’s problems. That’s an admirable stance and a theme we’ve seen more from Nadella than any other tech leader in recent years.
Secondly, Microsoft’s big push this year is a shift from Nadella’s earlier mobile-first, cloud-first vision to a new vision around intelligent cloud combined with intelligent edge. What that means is that Microsoft sees the cloud as being less centralized and more distributed, including in edge devices, and its new Azure IoT Edge concept takes cloud computing functionality and puts it in potentially tiny devices at the edge of the network. That’s a somewhat unique vision for the cloud, especially from a company that’s also strong in the core cloud context. If Microsoft is right about this vision, and I suspect it is in the industrial world especially, then that raises interesting questions for other vendors and their ability to push that capability into edge devices, where operating system companies are strong but others tend not to be.
Thirdly, Microsoft is pushing what it calls its Graph, which is a sort of backend for its own services but also opens up to developers, and began as an agglomeration of data about users and is expanding to include those users’ activities in apps and across devices. The idea is that this Graph will power continuity between apps and other activities for users through both first-party and third party features. It’s a good concept and in some versions is reminiscent of what Apple does with Handoff and Continuity in its operating systems. But the big challenge for this vision at Microsoft is that it’s got a huge gap in its Graph around mobile, because people spend the vast majority of their mobile time outside Microsoft devices, operating systems, and apps. I can’t see it changing that, and that’s going to reduce the value of the Graph significantly, especially in the consumer world. I’ll have more commentary on some of the consumer-focused announcements in tomorrow’s keynote.
Lastly, one kind of consumer-focused announcement today, which has been subtle on stage but covered somewhat in the press regardless based on pre-briefings is Cortana Skills, which were announced way back in December but are now going more generally available to developers. What’s interesting here is that unlike Amazon’s Alexa Skills, at least some of these third party capabilities will be built in even if users haven’t explicitly installed or enabled the apps, including weather app Dark Sky and Domino’s Pizza. We’re still in the very early days here, but it will be interesting to see how skills on a PC-centric assistant like Cortana evolve differently from those on speaker- or phone-centric assistants like Alexa or Siri.
via Techmeme (and about a thousand articles on different announcements made today which you’ll find linked there)
Microsoft was one of numerous big tech companies that reported Q1 2017 financial results (its fiscal Q3 results) this afternoon, and the only one of the big three to miss on revenue. That revenue miss was largely due to a shortfall in hardware revenue as Surface had its first big year on year decline in a year and a half due to a lack of new mass market hardware, and phone revenue dropped to essentially zero. However, these two businesses together make up just 4% of Microsoft’s revenue, which continues to be dominated by software and to an increasing extent services, while growth is dominated by the move to the cloud. Microsoft’s cloud revenue run-rate is now at an annualized $15.2 billion, compared to Amazon’s $14.5 billion in actual annual revenue, though Microsoft’s definition of cloud here is far more expansive than Amazon’s. The productivity business had a particularly strong growth quarter at over 20%, while the Intelligent Cloud segment also improved a little to just over 10%. But margins continue to fall overall as the newer cloud services generate less profit than Microsoft’s old massively profitable software business did, and that picture isn’t likely to change. Microsoft is growing again after both lapping the introduction of Windows 10 and the revenue deferral associated with the new business model, and also getting past the biggest drops in the phone business, but it’s mostly doing so by doubling down on enterprise products and services while its consumer and hardware businesses mostly continue to struggle to find growth.
What’s interesting here is that Microsoft is licensing patents rather than selling technology to Toyota – in other words, Toyota gets the right to use ideas patented by Microsoft, but not products or services built on top of them. That suggests that, while Microsoft has an impressive patent portfolio, it hasn’t necessarily built with those patents technology carmakers consider valuable. And that remains a big challenge for Microsoft in the connected car space – Windows and related technologies have been used in cars in the past, and Azure is being used as a cloud service behind some connected car services today, but Microsoft continues to struggle to build technologies carmakers actually want to use in cars, while other players continue to make headway in the space. I could certainly see Microsoft doing more deals like this – indeed, it describes this as a first for a new auto licensing program – but that doesn’t mean Microsoft is any closer to a stronger role in in-car technology.
The recent downtime for Microsoft’s various cloud services hasn’t got nearly the attention Amazon’s recent outage did, in part because it’s more of a brownout than the total blackout AWS experienced, and in part arguably also because fewer third party services rely on Azure and related services. But Microsoft has had a couple of recent issues, and as of right now they’re happening again. There will always be issues here and there with any large scale infrastructure, but that they’ve been lasting for hours and repeating at Microsoft recently is a little worrisome, and it’ll be good to see the explanation when Microsoft finally shares it.
The data center business at Intel accounts for almost a third of its revenues, has high margins, and has been growing considerably faster than its Client Computing segment (which includes PCs, tablets, and mobile phones). And it’s done well in large part because of commitments from big players like Microsoft to using its chips in their data center servers. But now Microsoft is saying it plans to switch to using ARM-based chips made by Qualcomm in its Azure server infrastructure instead, which could put a dent in Intel’s future growth and reduce its share from the 99% cited in this Bloomberg article. This isn’t imminent – it’s a step on a path Microsoft is committed to, but hasn’t been rolled out to any customer facing servers yet. But ARM-based chips have been cited as potential substitutes for Intel chips in server farms for some time now, so this could be the beginning of a dramatic shift in the next few years. That’s obviously terrible news for Intel, for which the data center business has been a useful source of growth and margins in recent years. Meanwhile, this is such a small business for Qualcomm today that it doesn’t even get mentioned in its quarterly earnings materials, but that could obviously change rapidly going forward.