SAN FRANCISCO — In the opening day keynote of its Build 2016 conference here, Microsoft used the terms “cognitive” and “intelligence” liberally to signal a new direction for the company.
Although the exact wording of the company’s goals were a bit different, the tone and sentiment sounded a lot like what IBM Chairman, CEO and President Ginni Rometty talks about when she declares this the “cognitive era” of computing, where IBM, with its Watson cognitive computing system, has taken something of a head start over competitors.
However, not to be outdone, Microsoft has been working on cognitive technology as well in its research groups. At Build, the company introduced a new cloud-based Cortana Intelligence Suite that introduces cognitive technology for developers to use in building systems. Microsoft also announced a preview of its new Bot Framework, which enables organizations to build intelligent agents, known as Bots.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said this is a new era of conversational intelligence that Microsoft is attempting to facilitate, to enable developers to create more personal computing for every customer, business and industry.
Nadella debuted Microsoft’s vision of Conversations as a Platform as a new emerging platform that is at the intersection of all of Microsoft’s major ambitions, including cloud, Office and Windows.
“It’s a simple concept, yet it’s very powerful in its impact,” he said in his keynote. “It is about taking the power of human language and applying it more pervasively to all of our computing — and to infuse into our computing and our computers, intelligence about us and our context. By doing so, we think this can have as profound an impact as the previous platform shifts have had – whether it be GUI, whether it be the Web or touch or mobile.”
In a blog post on the new direction and on the new Cortana Intelligence Suite, Joseph Sirosh, corporate vice president of the Data Group at Microsoft, said Microsoft believes that the most impactful data-driven solutions will go beyond analytics, and will include built-in intelligence that augments an organization’s capabilities in exciting new ways.
“Imagine a world, where nurses and doctors use remote monitoring solutions not only to analyze a patient’s vitals such as blood pressure, weight and heart-rate, but also to interpret a patient’s mood based on speech and tone analysis during a scheduled phone conversation,” Sirosh said. “Technology like this could help augment their diagnosis to better predict and prevent emergencies and have real impact on the well-being of the patient.
“Intelligent solutions such as these will not only be accessed via regular websites and mobile applications, but also through intelligent Bots that you can converse with in more contextual and natural ways, he said. “We believe that organizations creating data-driven solutions that utilize the best of big data, cloud and intelligence capabilities will be future industry leaders.”
That sounds a great deal like what IBM has been doing with Watson and its Watson Developer Cloud, which runs on IBM’s Bluemix cloud platform that features a catalog of more than 140 APIs, tools and services–a vast number of which are devoted to Watson.
“Only three companies have the horsepower to go the distance on this: IBM, Google and Microsoft,” said Al Hilwa, an analyst with IDC.
Indeed, at Build, Microsoft announced a preview of Microsoft Cognitive Services, which is a collection of intelligent APIs that allow solutions to see, hear, speak, understand and interpret our needs using natural methods of communication, Sirosh said.
“Cognitive Services expand our existing perceptual intelligence capabilities in areas such as vision, speech, text, recommendations and face detection to include new capabilities like emotion, language understanding and Bing search,” he said.
IBM’s Watson has all this and more, as IBM’s Rometty demonstrated when she took Watson to the Consumer Electronics Show in January.
“IBM definitely had a head start with Watson with the entire industry and was developed first for on-premises use,” said Patrick Moorhead, president and principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy. “IBM has focused a lot of their efforts into the healthcare and retail vertical. IBM has also moved Watson to XaaS [Anything-as-a-Service], too.”
However, “Microsoft got a later start, but Cortana was developed from the ground up to be used ‘as a service,’ in the cloud, and for developers across Windows and with the Xamarin acquisition, across iOS and Android, too,” Moorhead said. “Microsoft gets developers more as this is their business, as IBM’s primary business is helping its enterprise customers.”
Microsoft’s New ‘Cognitive’ Play Strays Onto IBM Watson’s Turf
While there are strong similarities between what Microsoft told developers at Build and what IBM offers via its Watson Analytics services and platform, there are also significant differences, said Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT.
On the first point, Microsoft’s re-branded Cortana Intelligence Suite, including new APIs and related technologies are designed to enable developers to create applications that can leverage a variety of voice, image and gesture inputs to enhance business and commercial processes supported by the company’s Azure cloud services, he said.
“That’s similar in spirit and practice to IBM’s Watson solutions with a couple of critical departures,” King said. “First and foremost, while Microsoft spoke fairly generally about their solutions–not surprising, since some of the features and technologies they plan to offer are still in preview, IBM has been quite specific about the evolution of the Watson platform, including detailing the 28 APIs it has created to date–with 50 percent more expected by the end of 2016. In addition, IBM is taking an industry-specific approach in developing and discussing Watson, using example from retail, healthcare, travel and R&D to highlight its capabilities/applicability. Those kinds of examples are thin on the ground at Microsoft, though I expect they’ll shape-up over time.”
Finally, Watson is certainly the highlight of IBM’s cognitive development efforts but it is just one part of a broader cognitive solutions and services portfolio, King argues.
“Right now, the Cortana Intelligence Suite is a shiny centerpiece without a lot of place settings around it,” he said. “This isn’t meant to knock Microsoft’s efforts in any way. The company has deep connections with developer communities, and millions of consumers and business end users depend on the company’s products. In other words, there will likely be ready audiences for the company’s cognitive solutions when they are ready for market. There are also areas uniquely suited to Microsoft’s commercial and intellectual properties, including the Bot Framework for developing cognitive applications leveraging common communications technologies. Given the company’s wealth of such assets, including Office 365, Skype and Slack, this is an area where Microsoft could easily impact the marketplace in very big ways.”
One Microsoft customer likely to tap into the new cognitive technology is AccuWeather, whose CTO, Christopher Patti, spoke at Build.
“AccuWeather is just one of the customers we’re working with who has immense amounts of data – literally trillions of objects stored inside the Azure storage system and they’re deriving real intelligence from it that changes the lives of millions of people,” said Scott Guthrie, executive vice president of Microsoft’s Cloud and Enterprise Group.
“Big data really is the heart of what AccuWeather is,” Patti said. “We’re really a big data company – everything starts with data. We’re creating intelligent weather solutions using highly predictive, visual and interactive technology with [Microsoft] Azure as the foundation. In fact, we’re now taking 15 billion data requests everyday worldwide and that’s resulting in two trillion storage objects all inside an Azure data lake.”
Patti explained that weather data is complex; it is actually one of the original big data challenges, due to the size, scale, location and real-time requirement of the content.
“And with Microsoft Azure we’re able to scale instantly and have absolute reliability, which is critical when severe weather hits,” he said. “Using other Microsoft products such as machine learning and Bing Predicts basically allow us to provide very important content to our end users as fast as possible and allows us to create individual solutions that are targeted to their individual markets.”
Patti also noted that AccuWeather serves more than 200 of the Fortune 500 companies, and the company’s goal is them data-driven solutions based on accurate weather information.
“We’re streamlining the processing of all that big data using Azure Data Factory, and that’s allowed us to really innovate in what we bring to our customers,” he said. “We’re also about to announce a Power BI pack to allow the world’s most accurate and detailed weather information to be brought to a large global audience in a product everyone is familiar with.”
Although provided ample time to respond to an eWEEK query, IBM, which last year acquired the Weather Company, did not provide a comment for this story in time for publication.