See this year’s top 5 underrated Microsoft announcements

0 Posted by - 28th December 2016 - Technology

This was a big year for Microsoft. The HoloLens began shipping to developers, Windows 10 made it through its first year intact (though not without controversy), and the company got into the desktop computer market with a stunning mega-touchscreen.

But there were a few key announcements that flew under the radar this year. While they may not have the splash factor of a Surface Studio or HoloLens, these developments have the potential to alter Microsoft and the world for years to come.

Here’s the rundown on what you probably missed.

Microsoft’s new bot tools help build conversation partners

At its Build developer conference, Microsoft outlined a vision for a conversational computing platform. The idea is pretty simple: Traditional user interfaces are hard to understand right off the bat, so we should let people just talk with computers.

In practice, that means the company is developing intelligent bots along with its Cortana virtual assistant. It revealed an open source Bot Framework to make it easier for developers to build automated conversation partners that work with different chat apps, like Skype, Facebook Messenger, Kik and others.

Late in the year, Microsoft showed off a bunch of new bot capabilities, including an Azure-based QnA Maker service that lets organizations upload FAQ documents and use them as the basis for a bot that can answer users’ questions.

Right now, bots aren’t a massive business, but it’s clear that Microsoft will continue building tools to push them into the mainstream. It will be interesting to see if that actually goes somewhere.

Specialized hardware can accelerate networking, machine learning and more

Microsoft had something special to share at its Ignite tradeshow in Atlanta earlier this year. The company revealed that it had deployed hundreds of thousands of Field-Programmable Gate Arrays across its entire cloud footprint to help accelerate key tasks.

FPGAs let developers configure circuitry to tackle particular tasks faster than other types of processors. In Microsoft’s case, they’re using them at first to accelerate software-defined networking between compute instances in Azure.

The benefits are available in beta now as Accelerated Networking, a free Azure feature that gives users transfer speeds of up to 25Gbps (bits per second) and latency between 25 and 50 microseconds. Moving SDN functions off the server can also free up more server hardware for computing.

FPGAs are also useful for certain machine-learning tasks, among other things, and Microsoft has been using them to its own benefit. The company is working on bringing FPGA-based acceleration to some of its machine-learning-based cloud services in the future.

AI gets its own division under Satya Nadella

In late September, Microsoft announced that it’s creating a new AI & Research division. This may seem like nothing more than a bizarre bit of organizational wrangling, but it’s an important sign of where Microsoft sees its business going.

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