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Microsoft artificial intelligence isn't 'drive-by analytics'

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While Salesforce Einstein and IBM Watson are trying to democratize analytics -- at the risk of watering it down -- Microsoft AI may be the most useful.

This year, artificial intelligence has taken center stage as a technology to watch. From Salesforce to IBM to Oracle to Microsoft, all technology providers have been honing some version of AI and machine learning technologies.

Microsoft rolled out its latest iteration of services for AI at the Microsoft Ignite conference in September. At Ignite, the company outlined Microsoft artificial intelligence in four areas of technology: agents, applications, services and infrastructure. By bringing AI to these four areas, Microsoft is hoping to make applications like Outlook more intelligent, helping workers to find documents relevant to their meetings more easily. It's also hoping to bring AI to its agents like Cortana, Microsoft's digital assistant, to organize users' time by reminding them of meetings, for example. And Microsoft AI is powered by Azure, Microsoft's cloud and platform as a service technology.

"Microsoft has a strong architecture under the hood," said Scott Robinson, a SharePoint and business intelligence (BI) expert. "When we talk about Azure AI, [Microsoft is] basically saying they are making the services available with Office 365 in the cloud now. The architecture that drives all of this is extremely well-tuned at this point," Robinson said.

Robinson said that Microsoft has shored up Azure to be more agile. "They have beefed up their cloud around the globe," he said. "In 15 of their data centers, they are deploying smart chips that are powerful and allow firmware rewrites on the fly. This is very 21st-century stuff. Microsoft is better positioned than they have ever been to distribute AI and distribute it in the cloud."

Robinson compared Microsoft artificial intelligence with Salesforce Einstein and IBM's Watson. Salesforce Einstein is compelling, he said, but Microsoft has been trying to make workers' lives more efficient for some time. "Salesforce is also doing something that Microsoft has become pretty good at after: using AI to anticipate a user's needs to handle your email, sync your calendar, collect data about how you do your work and suggest better ways to do your work," he said. Robinson noted that Salesforce and IBM are trying to democratize AI, but may be at risk of watering it down.

"Microsoft doesn't try to give you drive-by analytics," Robinson concluded. "They aren't trying to do what Salesforce and Watson are doing, where you pop in a coin, and, pow, you get analytics. And Microsoft surpassed Oracle 10 years ago … by bundling free business intelligence tools with SQL Server. You didn't have to have a BI specialist to do your work more intelligently. Salesforce and IBM are trying to skirt around this by making it vending-machine simple. Microsoft has the best philosophy when it comes to AI in the cloud."

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