On Tuesday, May 19, 2020, Microsoft kicked off Build, its annual developer conference. The live event held in Seattle for the past few years was this year turned into a fully digital gathering due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Build follows the sun with 48 hours filled with sessions streaming live across different time zones.
Towards the end of day one, Head of Comms, Frank Shaw, shared some numbers about the event: 202,219 people registered, of those 87,000 created a profile and scheduled 1 million sessions. The live Twitter feed recorded over 200,000 views. Pretty impressive numbers for an event that was reengineered from the ground up to fit a fully digital consumption model. For seasoned attendees, part of the event had a familiar feel: Satya Nadella’s keynote, the technical keynotes with Scott Hanselman, Scott Guthrie and Kevin Gallo, the Imagination Cup and a long list of sessions. There was plenty of news about Azure, Power Apps, Project Cortex, Microsoft 365, Project Reunion and Fluid Framework. What struck me the most, though, was how much learning opportunity there was for developers. Of course, this is not new, but it was much more apparent this year as labs, panels, focus groups and Microsoft Learn sessions were intertwined in the schedule in such a way that it made it much more obvious to see plenty of opportunities for attendees to bring it back to their needs and their business.
While many in the analyst and press world were lamenting not attending in person, I have to admit there were a few things that the digital format really facilitated.
First, a diversity of speakers. If you follow me enough, you know I tend to pay attention to how diverse the main stage of every conference is and, I must say, I was quite impressed with Build Day One. There was a great mix of speakers across gender, age, race, geographies and because of the format, it felt everybody shared the main stage because everything you watch was your main stage.
Second, a variety of topics. Side by side technical sessions and product announcements, there was the opportunity to hear about students’ mentorship into science and tech jobs, diversity and inclusion (I could have spent much longer on this), ethics and fairness in AI and more. The fact that you can do back to back sessions gives you the flexibility to fit more on your schedule and so does the shorter format that most sessions took on – a brilliant move from Microsoft.
This is the first digital even from Microsoft and won’t be the last as all events moved to digital until July 2021. In a pre-Build analyst session, Julia White said it is unlikely we will return to events the way they were before #COVID-19 both because it will take a while for people to be comfortable but also because they will learn the strengths of going digital.
From an announcement perspective there was one bit of news most Windows and Office users will be particularly interested in:
Last year at Ignite, Microsoft announced the public preview of Microsoft Fluid Framework aimed at making collaboration more seamless by making workflows go more fluidly across apps. This week we had a glimpse at the first integration of the Fluid Framework into Microsoft 365 with Outlook and Office.com.
Instead of creating documents, Fluid creates canvases where multiple people can collaborate in real-time and bringing together different elements like text, pictures, charts, tables. Each component is instantaneous and editable, making for a flexible and fast-paced experience, according to Microsoft. The simulation video sure seems impressive and Microsoft 365 enterprise and education subscribers will get access to a beta in the coming weeks.
The underlying concept is not dissimilar from Google Docs, but the implementation is quite different as each Fluid component is pulled together into one canvas, not a multitude of tabs. This could potentially be easier for current Office users to adopt and might cement users more into Microsoft 365. Right now, Office suffers from a lack of loyalty as users turn to Google when they need to collaborate. In a recent study we, at Creative Strategies, conducted in the US across 1000 users, we found that among Microsoft Office 365 users, 28% use Google Docs, 23% use Gmail and 18% use Google Sheets. Interestingly, Gsuite does not have a monopoly on its users’ time either, creating an opportunity for Fluid to convert users fully to Microsoft 365. Among our Gsuite users, 47% dabble into Word, 39% into Excel and 32% into Outlook.
The staggered approach Microsoft is taking with Fluid will allow users to experiment without imposing too much change too quickly. After the initial rollout to Outlook and Office.com, we will see Fluid incorporated into Microsoft Teams later this year and into the desktop versions of Outlook next year. Microsoft has also opened up the Fluid Framework to developers by making it opensource. This means that aside from Microsoft’s first-party Office apps, we will see other apps being able to create components to be added to the canvases. This might prove quite interesting for large enterprises that have proprietary apps. It will certainly be interesting to see how the likes of SalesForce, SAP and IBM will look at taking advantage of the Framework. It could be an opportunity or a threat depending on how breaking down an app into components might end up disenfranchising the app itself, making less clear where the value is coming from beyond Microsoft 365.
With Fluid and Edge, Microsoft is certainly moving more into a cloud and browser first experience for Microsoft 365. This, of course, means that the competition with G Suite and Chrome will heat up, which in turn means users will see more innovation, never a bad thing.
Lastly, whether you were attending those sessions that talked about the ability to schedule appointments, broadcast events, add automated workflows or a chatbot, there was one product that was center stage across Build: Microsoft Teams. If the growth Microsoft Teams has had over the past two months weren’t enough, these two days were a pretty strong testament to the robustness and capabilities of the product but also how much Microsoft has riding on it. It was clear to me Microsoft Teams is as central to the success of Build as it is to the success of Microsoft 365.