Ignite 2021 was a fifteen-billion-dollar bag of innovation that eclipsed hundreds of competitive products. Let me explain. Starting first with financials, then explore the rise of application builders, review my bag of Ignite innovations, and finish with the competition.
Quarterly Results and Intent
Microsoft’s second quarter 2021 results were strong, powered by Cloud growth. $16.7B of the $43.1B total revenue came from commercial cloud, i.e., Azure and 365 portfolios. Cloud revenue is up 34% over 2020. The key point in the earnings call was Microsoft’s quarterly net income: $15.5B, beating Amazon but not Apple.
Net income is the flywheel to drive innovation, growing Microsoft Teams, extending Azure, enriching the no-code Power Platform, and expanding virtual experiences with Microsoft Mesh. Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella, said this about Mesh, yet the point applies equally to the transformation of distributed teams in our “near but far” world:
“We have to bridge the physical and digital worlds. The atoms of the world must co-exist with the bits we build.” Long-time Microsoft followers might recall the product Mesh, envisioned by Ray Ozzie the brains behind Lotus Notes. Mesh began life as a peer-to-peer file synch tool that became SkyDrive and now the ubiquitous OneDrive. Mesh was the first cloud document storage platform from Microsoft. Ironically Mesh is now Microsoft’s virtual reality platform, which signals Microsoft’s goal to push the new Mesh into many business functions in the next three years. I bring Ray Ozzie into a post about the modern Microsoft because he defined the vision behind Ignite 2021. From his 2008 strategy paper , he established the transition roadmap to the cloud: “The concept of My Computer will give way to the concept of a personal mesh of devices, a means by which all of your devices are brought together, managed through the web, as a seamless whole.”
True to form, Microsoft continues to support hybrid configurations with Azure and Azure Stack and Azure Virtual networks. These virtual, hybrid networks allow CIOs to have Azure scale and a private network to avoid data exfiltration risks. When Nadella said “we are at the peak of centralized computing” it signals to CIOs that identity, server operations and management can be centralized. Yet we still need builders to glue together applications, wherever they are deployed.
The Builder Decade
Welcome to the multiplied application era: more applications will be built and deployed in the next 5 years than the last 40 years. There is huge demand to transform, a code word for digital automation. Business leaders have high expectations for productivity improvements, yet builders - today’s employees - have limited tools or must rely on professional developers. This demand that must be satisfied with distributed tools. Enter Microsoft Power Platform.
The Power Platform is composed of Power BI, Power Apps, Power Automate, Power Virtual Assistants (previous BOT framework). The most significant announcement is Power Automate Desktop is now included with Windows. The Desktop is the tool for robotic process automation (RPA) and interacts with Outlook email and document management.
Because CIOs are in the eye of this digital transformation “storm” they can leverage Microsoft Power Platform to accelerate solution development. Think of Power Platform Apps as a tool that connects different services that do not talk natively and get them talking; the promise is the Power Platform will create more builders with process knowledge and less developer experience.
For example, patent prosecution requires coordinating regulatory filing activities in multiple countries, processing patent office communications and managing patent specifications and claims as documents. Using RPA, an automation can process an inbox looking for messages with a pattern or sender email. Once found the automation will extract message details or attachments, then post to the patent management docketing application or start a document-based workflow to review the new item. This can save time over the entire patent portfolio.
This working example is underscored by the market size for process automation tools. By 2025 the market will be $3.97B, according to GrandView research; this is 30% CAGR from 2018 at just $167.1M. Market growth reflects process cost savings up to 50%. Second, RPA tools have a 5x services to software ratio when matched with domain expertise from law firms, ALSPs and consultants.
A Bag of Innovation
Everyone groans when any or all of these words appear in print: Innovation, Collaboration, or Digital Transformation. Microsoft Ignite was filled transformation stories; they declared their intent to innovate. This clarity massively increases the odds of success and creates powerful tail winds for partners and customers. Microsoft’s clear intent at Ignite was the magic of the show. I saw four magic moments. The full list of product updates for business is here  or IT professionals is here .
1 Microsoft Teams is now the operating system for business, not Outlook.
Companies have plotted for years to reduce the applications embedded in Outlook. COVID became the forcing function to start the transition to the communication style provided by Teams. A style that allows groups to work in the context of a problem, project, or event. In contrast to email, Microsoft Teams allows users to modulate their priorities without a flood of email.
Knowledge workers are independent actors, unlike the manufacturing floors of the industrial era. A lawyer, programmer, professional or journalist is assigned a task or asked to solve a problem, then left to independently complete the work. Yet, individual producers still need colleagues to amplify their results or validate their hypothesis. Teams is the way to coordinate independent actors without the overhead of email.
The notion of Teams as the operating system of the modern business is compelling. The union of Lists, Channels and Power Automate creates a new productivity frontier. Let’s look at few new ideas from the array of Ignite announcements . Use meeting transcription to avoid the million-dollar meeting. Meetings are frequently oversubscribed for fear of missing out (FOMO) or not having access to meeting notes. Rather than distribute meeting notes, use meeting transcription available in Teams or use FireFlies.ai The Microsoft has other good resources to be build better distributed teams. According to Microsoft data collected  in the last twelve months, the average meeting is 10 minutes longer, increasing from 35 to 45 minutes. It is up to team leaders to reduce the burden of meetings on distributed teams.
Bring business partners outside your company into the conversation with Teams Connect. Connect creates a shared channel within an existing Teams channel, where the external contact is added to the channel. Federation bridges tenants, eliminating context switching (i.e., logout-login) in Teams. Chat, real time document co-authoring and security controls apply to this new shared channel. While authentication is improved, information governance is not because this shared channel spins-up another SharePoint site. Effectively Teams Connect is SharePoint inside of SharePoint.
Use flexible presentation tools and initiate webinars. Teams now supports webinars for those inside and outside the business. For up to 1,000 attendees, webinars offer custom registration, new presentation options, host controls (disable attendee chat and video), and post-event reporting. This feature is clearly targeted at Zoom and should push CIOs away from Cisco-WebEx over time. While webinars are nice, PowerPoint live and custom presenter layouts is the real story. When presenting, the speaker’s video feed can move to the foreground and overlay the slides, enabling the John Oliver look made popular by the application. Lists application keep teams accountable by connecting the dots. SharePoint is the plumbing behind the Microsoft collaboration experience in Teams. Years ago, early SharePoint adopters suffered through deploying Lists. SharePoint Lists were easy to deploy but quickly became too technical for business users to use or incorporate into their workflow. Companies like or filled the gap. Microsoft Lists are easy to build; they match formatting, custom field types and event automation found in Monday and Airtable. Ultimately Microsoft Lists are shared just liked documents, published to specific groups as a checklist (see ) with , or act as the to-do list within a Teams channel. Lists give teams a roadmap for work to be done and simultaneously report on progress.
2 Digital Transformation Is About Business Transformation
Embarking on a journey is stressful. Do I have the best path? The best tools? We frequently focus on the start of the journey, then try to ignore the messy middle. The middle is filled with ambiguity, uncertainty, and the need for endurance. At Ignite, Microsoft shared interesting customer stories focused on the messy middle of digital transformation projects.
Thanks to Judson Althoff, EVP Worldwide Commercial Business for Microsoft, Microsoft mapped customer problems to five solutions areas.
Modern work: what are the best tools to help global teams be productive? Business applications: what are the essential applications for my business and are they consuming the appropriate resources (e.g., people, compute, user experience, cost)? Infrastructure: do I have the right mixture of resources to achieve my performance, availability, risk and cost mandates? Data & AI: is my business learning from data and apply assistive technology to the right problems? Security: am I using the appropriate user identity tools, data encryption and cybersecurity to balance productivity and protection?
These areas apply to any business. Judson encouraged business leaders to focus on business challenges and not the technology stack. First, build the project portfolio around how to improve business outcomes and key use cases. Then, select the best tools.
“Technology must be the servant of the business outcome.”
For example “digitize my business” and “get to the cloud” are not the same. Lifting and shifting assets to the cloud is not enough. To navigate the messy middle of change, select projects with meaningful outcomes and remember:
“Digital transformation is about business transformation, empowered by technology, and in that order.“ 
3 Identity Management
As physical and digital worlds converge, we will require more sovereignty to adapt to decentralized work. Open standards like Security Assertion Markup Language () have accelerated application building. Unfortunately the underlying identity management using LDAP or Azure Active directory still required a password. Microsoft now supports password-less authentication on Azure AD. This eliminates one of the weakest links in security today. Password-less authentication using Microsoft Authenticator, an iOS and Android application, removes the need for a password and, equally important, removes the SMS text with a security code. SMS is less secure. This identity management evolution includes Temporary Access Pass to generate time-limited code to setup or recover a password. Finally, policies can now chain security conditions, like if-then statements, to grant access. This applies to OneDrive and SharePoint content for information barriers. Password-less authentication is only part of identity management. Identity also includes employee or contractor education and certifications. Imagine a method to digitally confirm these details before they join your team? At Ignite, Microsoft showed improvements to Verifiable Credentials . Verifiable credentials is implements decentralized identifiers () based on a W3C working group. Companies rely on Microsoft to normalize emerging standards to solve key use cases. When you combine verifiable credentials with Microsoft Viva a range of manual steps can be removed during employee onboarding. Verifiable Credentials will impact companies like , and others in the self-sovereign identify claims business using blockchain.
4 Knowledge Work
Microsoft Viva, the resource to build topic cards and deliver learning-in-context, was in the spotlight at Ignite. Using Microsoft Teams as an organizing layer for work, Viva Topics  can highlight domain terms in chat that require explanation then identify experts to explore those topics. It suggests topics using machine learning, while knowledge managers curate those topics by promoting or demoting. Promoted topics are refined as more information is processed and more experts are connected to those topics. Ultimately, topic and expert cards are created and presented as Viva Topics. This is a great way to help employees learn in the flow of their work. I expect to see subject matter experts create and license Viva Topics. Other Microsoft tools for knowledge work are SharePoint Syntex and Azure Cognitive Services. Syntex  is a toolbox to auto-classify documents then extract relevant clauses based on machine learning models. Think of Syntex as a generic version of Kira but for a SharePoint library. Syntex is licensed by machine learning modules used, data processed and does require a user license of $5 PUPM. Coupling RPA and Syntex will lead to new productivity gains.
Azure Cognitive Services is enterprise searched delivered as a platform (PaaS). The data ingestion pipeline can find business names, people, locations and sentiment in content indexed. Business partners will provide industry specific extensions like case name, judge, etc. Today BA Insight uses portions of cognitive services to enrich indexing pipelines through NetKnowledge from NetDocuments.
Cognitive Services relies on the Microsoft Graph API. The Graph is a powerful Microsoft resource to explore the flow of business data between employees, including reporting hierarchies, key discussion topics and even working patterns. It also the hub for OneDrive content changes and organizational moves.
The Graph API is the central nervous system of a business, providing a glimpse into patterns and practices. This glimpse is essential to explore grow areas or make teams more productive. If the Graph is the speedometer of a business, then Cognitive Services is the engine. As a CIO, your business partners should leverage Microsoft Cognitive Search like BA Insight .
Ultimately knowledge management can be deployed as PaaS. These platforms deliver constant machine learning innovation at lower deployment cost. Viva and Cognitive Services should be part of a modern knowledge management roadmap.
Microsoft Will Eclipse Competitors
I started this post with the notion that money buys innovation. Ignite 2021 showed Microsoft at the top of their game. As CIOs constantly evaluate their application portfolios, simplification is a frequent goal and these product categories will consolidate:
Security providers: DUO, Okta and Ping Identity, all $100M+ revenue companies will have market share eroded, except for complex multi-cloud enterprises. Video and Webinar providers: While Zoom is exempt, Cisco-WebEx, GoToMeeting, and others will lose market share as Teams functionality grows. List and ad-hoc data platforms: and AirTable will see customer churn as Microsoft Lists continues to improve. Content storage providers: Box, Hyland, iManage, OpenText, NetDocuments will become systems of record, while daily work is done in OneDrive. Because OneDrive supports extensible meta data and now governance many business leaders with find OneDrive as “good enough.” Enterprise search providers: Because BA Insight’s architecture enables plug-and-play at the content understanding level, they will grow with Microsoft. iManage RAVN, Open Text Recommind and others will be eclipsed in the next upgrade cycle.
The one certainty is Microsoft customers with an E5 license grow and leverage Microsoft resources. In fact, we might expect a Microsoft E11 license tier soon (a joke). Microsoft delivered their intention to innovate this decade, so why not turn it up to 11? And let the builders build in 2021.