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Microsoft AI services roadmap to be delivered at Build

Microsoft's Build developer conference is set to showcase a range of new services for IoT, AI and machine learning. It's evidence of how developers' palettes and customer requirements have expanded beyond core enterprise IT scenarios.

Microsoft AI will dominate the Build conference next week, with a focus on emerging technologies, such as blockchain, machine learning and IoT, in a clear indication of how its pitch to developers has broadened and morphed with the times.

There are more than 1.3 million developers now using its Azure Cognitive Services for AI and machine learning, said Frank X. Shaw, Microsoft's head of communications, in a virtual press conference prior to Build.

Microsoft plans to give a preview of Personalizer, which uses reinforcement learning techniques to train models on how to personalize content for users. Shaw didn't elaborate, but this appears to be a successor or evolution of Custom Decision Service, which has been in preview for some time.

In addition, Microsoft will roll out two new Cognitive Vision Services: Ink Recognition, for handwriting analysis, and Form Recognizer, which can extract text, key values and other data types from documents.

Microsoft also intends to showcase its direction for digital assistants. A new QnA Maker service is geared for creating multiturn dialogues that are more complex and humanlike, Shaw said.

Other Microsoft AI-related updates set for discussion include a zero-code model creator that uses a drag-and-drop interface, as well as a push into MLOps. The latter is Microsoft's bid to improve machine learning model debugging, continuous delivery and model quality using concepts from DevOps.

The goal is "to help put the work of data scientists into production at scale," Shaw said.

On the data management front, Microsoft plans to offer a private preview of Azure SQL Database Edge. This will complement its existing support for AI-related workloads at the edge with the ability to run on ARM-based devices. Azure SQL Database Edge will also offer support for time-series data -- information stamped with a specific time as it is collected -- which is germane to IoT scenarios.

In other IoT developer news, Microsoft will roll out IoT Plug and Play, a modeling language for connecting IoT devices to the cloud quickly. This will provide an abstraction layer that mitigates the challenge of writing code specifically to each type of connected device.

Finally, Microsoft will preview its Azure Blockchain Service, along with related developer tools. These can simplify the creation of blockchain networks, including with extensions for Visual Studio Code and Logic Apps, Shaw said.

Build agenda reflects shifting developer tastes

More Build news will be revealed during keynotes by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and other executives on May 6. But for a developer-oriented conference, core Microsoft tools, such as the Visual Studio IDE, won't be in the brightest spotlight, and there are reasons for that.

Developers still are very much interested in and use Microsoft tools, but the way they're doing it is changing.
Jeffrey HammondAnalyst, Forrester Research

"There are a couple things going on here," said Jeffrey Hammond, an analyst at Forrester Research. "Developers still are very much interested in and use Microsoft tools, but the way they're doing it is changing."

In fact, Visual Studio Code, the lightweight, cross-platform code editor it released a few years ago, will soon overtake Visual Studio as Microsoft's No. 1 integrated development environment, Hammond said.

"For better or worse, VS Code has won over the JavaScript developer," he added. Yet, Microsoft may not have much to announce around Visual Studio Code at Build this year, according to Hammond.

Second, Azure DevOps -- formerly known as Visual Studio Team Foundation Server -- and online services such as Azure Pipelines are in a transition phase due to the continuing integration of GitHub, the wildly popular, open source software repository and version control system, which Microsoft bought last year for $7.5 billion. That move raised eyebrows among some adherents, even in light of Microsoft's embrace of open source under Nadella's leadership. 

To that end, Microsoft is likely saving some announcements that bridge GitHub and its core development tools for GitHub's own event, which is set for later in May, Hammond speculated. "Microsoft is very cautious about mingling the communities at this point," Hammond said.

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