Microsoft is on the edge: Windows, Office? Naah. Let's talk about cloud, AI

At its dev conference, Redmond is all about Azure, bots, Azure and also Azure


It wouldn't be a tech keynote without, yup, oodles of artificial intelligence

Like its peers, Microsoft has become convinced that everything is better with AI inside. It added several new AI-infused offerings – Bing Custom Search, Custom Vision Service, Custom Decision Service and Video Indexer – bringing its Cognitive Services count to 29, if anyone's counting.

In fact, Microsoft is counting. It says that some 568,000 developers from more than 60 countries have signed up to use Cognitive Services since the AI-oriented portfolio was introduced at Build two years ago. It also claims that 130,000 developers have signed up to use its Bot Framework since the software's introduction last year.

As point of comparison, Facebook at its F8 conference trumpeted 100,000 bot developers for its Messenger Platform and a similar number of bots.

And just as Facebook has had to temper its bot expectations and shift away from dialog-based interaction, the way Microsoft personnel talk about bots suggests that interactive, conversational software hasn't been quite as transformative as hoped.

"We really still believe that in a couple of years everything will want to be able to understand language and speech, said Lili Cheng, general manager of Microsoft FUSE Labs, during the press pre-briefing.

In the meantime, as Facebook has learned, menus offer clarity for bots that text- and speech-based interaction can't quite deliver yet.

"We continue to believe very strongly that [bots] are an exciting part of what we're offering," comms chief Shaw insisted. His message sounded more like reassurance than wild-eyed evangelism.

The Microsoft Bot Framework has become a bit more capable, with the addition of Adaptive Cards. Cards are rich media interfaces that work across multiple apps and platforms. Bot developers can also now publish bots that can access channels like Bing, Cortana, and Skype for Business and can implement payment requests via API.

For developers who wish to train their own neural networks, Shum previewed a service called Azure Batch AI Training that supports building models using frameworks like Caffe, Microsoft Cognitive Toolkit, and TensorFlow. This service is in private beta at the moment.

Visual Studio for the Mac reached general availability, offering developers a well-regarded IDE for creating cross-platform apps in C#, among other languages, in conjunction with Xamarin's tooling, .NET Core, and Azure.

Speaking of Azure, there's now software called Azure Cloud Shell, for authenticated, browser-based shell access to Azure resources. Azure can also manage MySQL and PostgreSQL databases as a service, under the names Azure Database for MySQL and Azure Database for PostgreSQL. And there's now a mobile app called Azure Mobile Portal for Android and iOS.

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