Microsoft’s 15 Top Announcements At Ignite Fall 2021

The company used its virtual conference to unveil new security offerings and features, enhancements to the Azure cloud platform and new features in Teams.

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New security offerings and features, Azure enhancements and new capabilities for Office and Teams were among some of Microsoft’s biggest announcements this week during its Ignite virtual conference for fall 2021.

At Ignite, Microsoft’s conference for developers and IT professionals, CEO Satya Nadella touted integrations across a wide array of technology products as key to Microsoft’s dominance in the digital transformation space.

“The Microsoft cloud offers the best integration across the entirety of the tech stack while offering openness at every layer,” Nadella said during prerecorded remarks. “This is so important. The Microsoft cloud helps orchestrate all of your heterogeneous digital investments across every layer of the tech stack.”

New products and features moved to general availability include Microsoft Test Base for Microsoft 365, Microsoft Edge web browser availability for Linux, retention and deletion policies for private Teams channels, Microsoft Viva and Microsoft Cloud for Financial Services and Cloud for Nonprofit.

Microsoft announced previews of products for select users as well, including Microsoft Defender for Endpoint support for vulnerability management for Android and iOS devices, Microsoft Defender for IoT agentless monitoring capabilities, Mesh-enabled capabilities for Teams users, new Dynamics 365 Sales integration with Teams dialer, Dynamics 365 Connected Spaces and industry-specific database templates in the studio experience for Azure Synapse Analytics.

What follows are the details on Microsoft’s top 15 announcements at Ignite fall 2021.

New Security Offerings And Updates

As part of its security updates announced during Ignite, Microsoft expanded Cloud Security Posture Management (CSPM) and Cloud Workload Protection capabilities to rival cloud giant Amazon Web Services (AWS) environments.

Microsoft has rebranded the Azure Security Center and Azure Defender into Microsoft Defender for Cloud and rebranded Azure Defender for IoT into Microsoft Defender for IoT.

Microsoft Defender for Endpoint has a preview of added support for vulnerability management for Android and iOS devices, according to Microsoft.

Microsoft Defender for IoT will also have a public preview at the end of the month for new agentless monitoring capabilities to secure IoT devices connected to IT networks.

“Cybersecurity is the biggest threat to digital transformation today. And it’s the No. 1 risk facing every business going forward,” Nadella said. “If you think about the amount of change during the pandemic that our IT and cyber operations had to go through—as every business process became remote—this complexity will only increase.”

One focus area for Microsoft at Ignite will be on highlighting “how we’re building end-to-end solutions that span all clouds and all platforms—including for small and medium-sized businesses, with the new Defender for Business,” he said.

Microsoft Defender for Business, a new endpoint security solution, offers “next-generation” protection to SMBs including through endpoint detection and response capabilities as well as threat and vulnerability management, Microsoft said in a blog post Tuesday. The solution also offers a simplified approach for setup and management, the company said in the post. Microsoft Defender for Business enters public preview “later this month” and is aimed at SMBs with 300 or fewer employees, according to the post.

Upgrades To Office Suite

Microsoft also unveiled new features for other applications in the Microsoft 365 suite, including the Clipchamp creation tool for Office, which allows users to create, edit and share videos in addition to the traditional documents, spreadsheets and slides. and the Office application for Windows will receive new pages for Home, My Content and Create with the goal of simplifying how users find content and files across apps and storage locations, according to Microsoft.

PowerPoint received a new recording studio feature for users. And a new JavaScript API in Excel will allow developers to create custom data types with images, entities, arrays and formatted number values.

The Universal Print cloud service will also gain new printing support from Microsoft Excel for web from any device using a browser. This will be generally available by the end of the year, according to Microsoft.

Mesh For Teams Introduced

Microsoft plans to launch a preview of Mesh-enabled capabilities for Teams users on PC, mobile and mixed-reality headsets in the first half of 2022.

Users will have the ability to share and collaborate spatially on existing Microsoft 365 documents, presentations and content, according to the company. Users can make avatars for meetings and make them express emotions with live reactions. Organizations can create branded immersive spaces that look like conference rooms, design centers and networking lounges, according to Microsoft.

As an example of Mesh in action, Microsoft built Mesh-enabled immersive spaces with solution provider Accenture, which has used mixed reality to onboard new employees during the pandemic.

“The feature combines the mixed-reality capabilities of Microsoft Mesh, which allows people in different physical locations to join collaborative and shared holographic experiences with the productivity tools of Teams, where people can join virtual meetings, send chats, collaborate on shared documents and more,” John Roach, an executive architect in Microsoft’s digital transformation services, wrote in a blog post Tuesday.

Nadella Talks Metaverse

During his keynote at Ignite, Nadella focused on AI, security, identity, Teams collaboration and the metaverse.

“As the digital and physical worlds come together, we are creating an entirely new platform layer, which is the metaverse,” Nadella said. “We’re bringing people, places and things together with the digital world, in both the consumer space as well as in the enterprise.”

For instance, the newly announced Dynamics 365 Connected Spaces “provides a new perspective on the way people move and interact in physical spaces—whether it’s a retail store or a factory, or even how organizations manage health and safety in a hybrid work environment,” he said. “You can do analytics, you can get real-time insights, you can run simulations, you can automate routine tasks. And when we talk about the metaverse, we are describing both a new platform and a new application type--similar to how we talked about the web and websites in the early ‘90s.”

Across the Microsoft cloud, “from Azure IoT, to Azure Digital Twins, to Connected Spaces and Microsoft Mesh, we are building ... the metaverse platform for you to build upon,” Nadella said. “In a sense, the metaverse enables us to embed computing into the real world, and to embed the real world into computing, bringing real presence to any digital space. For years, we’ve talked about creating this digital representation of the world. But now we actually have the opportunity to go into that world and participate in it.”

Teams Gets A Boost

Microsoft announced many new capability updates for its popular Teams collaboration app.

New previews include new abilities to configure separate retention and deletion policies for attached files stored in OneDrive and SharePoint with a message and the abilities to configure retention and deletion policies for groups within Teams, shared channels for individuals across multiple organizations, Q&A in Teams for question-and-answer sessions during an event and virtual green rooms that allow organizers and presenters to talk, monitor chats, manage attendee settings and share content before an event begins and for enhanced controls that allow hosts to manage what attendees see, according to Microsoft.

Microsoft Records Management has gained new capabilities integrated into Teams to improve data protection, according to the company. Now generally available are retention and deletion policies for private Teams channels, according to Microsoft.

Through the Microsoft Teams Connect tool -- which allows for collaboration among multiple organizations -- Microsoft plans to release an update for Chat with Teams that allows Teams users to chat with people outside the work network with a personal account.

More changes to Teams’ chat tool will roll out until early 2022, according to Microsoft. The upgrades include the ability for users to send themselves ideas, reminders and other messages; a chat density feature to customize the number of messages on screen with different modes and increasing the amount of 3-D emojis from six to 800.

Teams has gained more features with third-party applications including SAP Sales & Service Core and Atlassian’s Jira Cloud. A redesigned Teams App store will launch later this month with a new layout, new categorizations, intelligent app recommendations and curated app editorials, according to Microsoft.

New Capabilities For Dynamics 365

Microsoft has a new all-in-one digital contact center solution powered by Teams and Dynamics 365 Customer Service, adding chat and voice connectivity among other business application capabilities, according to Microsoft.

Microsoft Teams and Dynamics 365 have gained new integrations with Editor with Context IQ, Microsoft’s natively integrated AI experience across the 365 suite. Users can pull customer content from Dynamics 365 into a Teams channel to use the data from within Teams.

Dynamics 365 Sales gained a preview to allow sellers to use integrated Teams dialer for calls and use conversation intelligence to transcribe the call and see analysis of the sentiment and behavior. A preview to see who in an organization is working on a Dynamics 365 record and is available to chat is available for Marketing, Sales, Customer Service and Field Service, according to Microsoft.

And Microsoft launched a preview of Dynamics 365 Connected Spaces, formerly known as Dynamics 365 Connected Store, for retail businesses to use artificial intelligence-powered models to gain data on trends and patterns.

Microsoft Beefs Up Azure

Microsoft announced plenty of Azure updates during the week. New previews include a set of industry-specific database templates in the studio experience for Azure Synapse Analytics; a feature to connect SQL servers to Azure SQL Managed Instance, no matter where the servers are hosted, and telemetry, time series and log data real-time analytics in Azure Synapse through a new data explorer capability.

New generally available features for Azure include Azure Managed Instance for Apache Cassandra, using Azure Advisor for alerts to control spending, Azure Synapse’s Event Hubs Premium feature, a new deployment option for Azure Database’s fully managed database services for MySQL and PostgreSQL and the free DevOps Workflow Generator tool to allow users to visualize the entire DevOps toolchain., according to Microsoft.

Azure Communication Services interoperability with Microsoft Teams will become available in December. Developers will have new abilities to streamline voice, video and chat between users on custom-built applications, websites and Teams, according to Microsoft.

And as part of a group of updates to Azure related to artificial intelligence (AI), Microsoft Azure Cognitive Search gained support for more than 50 languages for select users.

The tech giant launched updates to its Azure Cognitive Services suite, including invitation-only access to OpenAI’s GPT-3 models for security, compliance and other enterprise capabilities on Azure, according to Microsoft.

“We are taking the AI breakthroughs and translating them into platforms for you to build upon—whether it’s deploying intelligent agents to speed up customer service, or extracting insights from volumes of unstructured data,” CEO Nadella said.

Microsoft will continue to take “incredible breakthroughs” in AI and “turn them into new capabilities for our customers—whether it’s speech transcription, speech translation in PowerPoint, or now [the] 100+ languages and dialects we support in Microsoft Translator,” Nadella said.

Microsoft Loop Unveiled

Microsoft has introduced a new application that offers fluid components, flexible canvases and shared workspaces for asynchronous and synchronous collaboration available across the Microsoft 365 suite of apps, including Teams.

The app, Microsoft Loop, has lists, tables, notes, tasks and other components to keep workers collaborating on projects in sync. For example, users can add notes to calendar invites in Outlook and Teams to improve an agenda before a meeting and make a list of follow-up actions, according to Microsoft.

The canvases, also called Loop pages, allow coworkers to bring in files, links, data and other elements. And the shared workspaces aim to help coworkers track progress toward project goals, according to Microsoft.

New Hardware Coming

In the first half of 2022, Microsoft will make available direct guest join for Teams Room users to join meetings in BlueJeans and GoToMeeting. Early next year, the Yealink deskVision AIO24 24-inch display will be released as a standalone Teams device or second screen for PCs.

The AIO24 and Neat Frame will also gain the ability for hotdesking -- a feature for finding and reserving flexible workspaces in a shared office environment through Teams, according to Microsoft. And Logitech has a new Teams panel, the Tap Scheduler.

The devices follow a trend of hardware designed to give users the most out of virtual meetings.

By the end of the year, Microsoft managed services will allow for Surface Hub management, according to the company.

Earlier this year, Microsoft announced new Surface devices built “hand-in-hand” with the recently released Windows 11 operating system.

Viva Availability Expands

The Microsoft Viva employee experience platform is now available for all users, featuring four modules: Connections, Insights, Topics and Learning.

Teams integrations with Viva include users can add cards for approvals, shifts and tasks into the Viva Connections dashboard. All four modules of the Viva employee experience platform -- are now generally available, according to Microsoft.

The Viva Insights app for Teams will allow users to connect with colleagues, recognize accomplishments, track tasks and “explore personal habits that impact team culture,” according to Microsoft. The app will also give meeting organizers suggestions on improving habits.

Teams users will soon have the ability to add Viva Topics to chats and channels to share informational pages created and updated by artificial intelligence. Viva Learning is available to all Teams desktop and mobile users. Teams users can even add a curated set of learning resources to a channel as a tab, according to Microsoft.

More Industry Clouds Access

This week, Microsoft made some changes to its series of industry-specific packages of cloud tools and services.

Microsoft Cloud for Financial Services is now generally available and pulls from features in Azure, Microsoft 365, Dynamics 365 and Power Platform. Microsoft Cloud for Nonprofit is also generally available, according to Microsoft.

Microsoft Cloud for Manufacturing is now in preview with the goal of easing supply chain and manufacturing disruptions, according to the company. It includes capabilities around operational visibility, product twins, learning management and digital selling. Microsoft Cloud for Sustainability is also available in preview and has capabilities around emission visibility, according to Microsoft.

Updates to Microsoft Cloud for Healthcare include improved health care data modeling and Virtual Visits Manager, a Teams application meant to provide virtual consults data analysis, according to Microsoft.

Power Platform Adds Functionality

More capabilities from Microsoft’s low-code development product Power Platform have been integrated with Teams. The Power BI app in Teams is available for all users with new scorecard visuals available for users that have opted into the Power BI Goals preview in Teams, according to Microsoft.

Teams users can browse Teams-specific automations in the Teams App Store and use Power Automate templates without advanced configuration, according to the company. Bot makers can also now share Power Virtual Agents in Teams in appropriate security groups. Soon, bot makers will have the ability to add their Virtual Agent to a channel, according to Microsoft.

Previews are available for a new process mining feature; for Virtual Agents that can proactively message users; for Power Apps makers to package apps as native apps for Android and iOS; collaboration with comments while building apps, flows and chatbots; and a pay-as-you-go purchasing plan for Power Apps, according to Microsoft.

More Windows Controls

Microsoft announced integration of controls for scheduling and deploying Windows feature updates for Intune users as part of a host of operating system updates.

Microsoft Test Base for Microsoft 365 is now generally available to allow independent software vendors, enterprise partners and other users to test applications against versions of Windows Client and Server, according to the company.

Windows 365 Enterprise edition gives PC users a Windows 11 experience in the cloud, with Business edition support “coming soon,” according to Microsoft. Windows 365 also received improvements for faster load times, local resource settings, Azure Active Directory support and Microsoft Endpoint Manager resource reports.

Microsoft Expands Edge Browser

The tech giant expanded the Microsoft Edge web browser availability for Linux to general availability and launched a public preview of Cloud Site List Management to allow IT to store site lists in authenticated endpoints in the cloud instead of on-premises infrastructure, according to the tech giant.

Microsoft Search gained a new Work Search shortcut and improvements, including expanded availability to government cloud customers and a new experience for schools. Work Vertical in Bing for searching work-related content also gained an update.

The Internet Explorer 11 desktop applications is still set to retire on June 15 for certain versions of Windows 11. IE mode in Microsoft Edge is supported until at least 2029, according to Microsoft.

Microsoft Debuts Customer Experience Platform

A new customer engagement solution was introduced this week by Microsoft. Called Microsoft Customer Experience Platform, the solution gives users abilities to better predict customer intent, accelerate time to market and deliver content to specific channels.

The platform takes in features from Dynamics 365, Microsoft Promote IQ, Microsoft Clarity, Microsoft Azure Purview and Azure Synapse Analytics, according to the company.

The platform aims to improve interactions across in-person, advertising, email, mobile, social media and other interactions and integrates with Dynamics 365 Customer Insights and Microsoft Advertising.

Early users include Chipotle, Crocs, The Home Depot and Walgreens Boots Alliance, according to Microsoft.