Genee acquisition provides virtual assistant for Microsoft Office 365

Microsoft enhances its productivity suite with natural language processing software Genee, while also keeping up with recent Salesforce upgrades.

Microsoft's latest acquisition of scheduling assistant software Genee Inc. will allow users to easily schedule meetings through Office 365, with the help of an AI bot that works with natural language.

The Genee acquisition also keeps Microsoft in line with other industry leaders in the race to supply artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning capabilities throughout its system.

"In the last couple of years, there's been a theme from Microsoft of how can they increase engagement and create tools to get people to use their products day in and day out," said Wes Miller, research vice president of independent consulting company Directions on Microsoft, based in Kirkland, Wash. "This aligns perfectly."

The acquisition of Genee, based in Mountain View, Calif., is another example of Microsoft upping the capabilities of its productivity suite, in hopes of providing its customers one source for all of their day-to-day needs. Salesforce, the vendor's sometimes competitor, sometimes partner, has also idealized the same goal.

The timing of the Genee acquisition is also relevant, because it occurs just two weeks after Salesforce announced upgrades to its Inbox features, allowing for calendar integration and smarter meeting invites -- a similar upgrade that Microsoft is planning with its Office 365 suite.

While the new Salesforce feature and Microsoft acquisition are both intended to make scheduling meetings and tracking upcoming events easier, that's where the similarities end. Genee's functions seem to go beyond integrating a calendar and attaching open schedule times to an email. Instead, Genee has the capabilities to automate most of the scheduling process, initiated by carbon copying Genee to an email expressing interest for a meeting. Genee uses natural language technology to continue scheduling the meeting, emailing the recipient specific times and preferences that work, and finishing up the process by sending out a meeting invitation.

"Genee uses natural language processing and optimized decision-making algorithms so that interacting with a virtual assistant is just like interacting with a human one," Rajesh Jha, corporate vice president for Outlook and Office 365 at Microsoft, said in a news release.

Miller outlined a way that integrating Genee into Office 365 could lead beyond just scheduling assistants, once Microsoft has factored in its other offerings, such as Cortana and LinkedIn.

This tool fits really well into the Office 365 set of tools, starting with helping people set up meetings faster.
Wes Millerresearch vice president, Directions on Microsoft

"This tool fits really well into the Office 365 set of tools, starting with helping people set up meetings faster," Miller said. "But Microsoft can grow it and evolve it to do other things. Beyond just scheduling meetings, it could help build contact lists. [Microsoft] wants to make Office 365 like it made the Windows Server in the past: something you have to have."

There are other companies that provide similar features, including San Francisco-based Clara Labs and its virtual assistant, Clara, and New York-based, which recently raised $23 million in series B funding. The move toward automation for monotonous processes and AI to help users is on the rise, and the Genee acquisition by Microsoft is the latest in the ongoing trend, according to Alan Lepofsky, vice president and principal analyst at Constellation Research Inc., based in Cupertino, Calif.

"The next weapon in the enterprise software battleground is artificial intelligence," Lepofsky said in an email. "Vendors such as Microsoft, IBM, Google and Salesforce are actively building and acquiring technologies that help automate personal productivity and team collaboration tasks, such as replying to emails and scheduling meetings. Today's purchase of Genee is a perfect example of Microsoft's mission -- outlined by CEO Sataya Nadella -- of reinventing productivity."

Miller, who previously worked at Microsoft, cited the Genee acquisition as a product the company has been working on for years.

"They've had nothing quite like this; there have always been tools to try and help do it, but it's funny how far we've come," he said. "I worked at Microsoft 20 years ago, and they were saying this feature was right around the corner. It's a problem they've wanted to solve."

Genee services will shut down on Sept. 1, according to a blog post on its website. The post added, while reminders and alerts will no longer be sent, all existing calendar entries past Sept. 1 will remain intact and scheduled.

Details surrounding the cost and when Genee will be integrated with Office 365 have not been released.

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