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Microsoft Announces IoT and Intelligent Edge Solutions for Device Partners at Computex

Microsoft announced enhancements this week at Computex, an IT event in Taipei aimed at hardware partners building Internet of Things (IoT) and "intelligent edge" devices.

Most prominent at the event was a 70-inch partner-built intelligent edge device known as a Windows Collaboration Display. It's a new device described as a multitouch collaboration tool that incorporates Microsoft Office and Microsoft Teams applications, along with having a whiteboard capability for drawing on the screen. On display at Computex was Sharp's Windows Collaboration Display device. Sharp's product and another such device built by Avocor are expected to be available "later this year."

Windows Collaboration Display vs. Surface Hub
The Windows Collaboration Display device is maybe a surprising market entry. For instance, Microsoft had always distinguished its Surface Hub videoconferencing devices from partner-built Skype Room Systems precisely because Surface Hub devices also include Office and whiteboard capabilities, along with Skype for Business unified communications support.

At this point, Microsoft's Computex announcements didn't provide enough details to understand the differences, if any, between a Windows Collaboration Display and a Surface Hub device.

Microsoft's Skype for Business videoconferencing-device partnerships first began under its "Project Rigel" effort, which also supports partners building solutions for legacy conferencing devices. Microsoft is already working on its new Surface Hub 2 products, with product availability expected next year.

IoT Spatial Intelligence
Windows Collaboration Display devices can use Microsoft's new "IoT spatial intelligence" capabilities, which let developers tap environmental data. Microsoft described IoT spatial intelligence in this announcement as supporting room systems, for the most part. For instance, information collected by sensors might be used to manage a building's heating and cooling, or it might be used to provide information on how room spaces can be used.

Partners can build "spatially aware solutions" using these IoT spatial intelligence capabilities, and they can use artificial intelligence (AI) to "correlate data from across the digital and physical world," the announcement indicated. Microsoft listed 11 partners using IoT spatial intelligence capabilities for things like workplace design, improving commercial property use, facilities management, building controls and construction projects.

Microsoft also conceives of IoT spatial intelligence as being useful for supporting so-called "smart cities," facilitating transportation, traffic and public safety operations.

The Intelligent Edge
To support its partners, Microsoft announced a new Intelligent Edge Partner Community, with sign-up located at this page. It gives partners early access to "documentation, specs, OS builds and certification details," Microsoft indicated.

Microsoft means a whole lot when it uses the phrase "intelligent edge," with a heavy emphasis on the use of AI by devices. On May 3, during a pre-Build online press briefing, the intelligent edge term was defined by Kevin Scott, Microsoft's newly appointed chief technology officer, formerly of LinkedIn.

Scott was asked about the main difference between intelligent edge (introduced by Microsoft at last year's Build event) and edge computing (which has been described over the past two years) and what the Azure roadmap is on intelligent edge. Here's Scott's reply, which is nuanced enough to be quoted in full:

I think edge computing sometimes is a little bit confusing because sometimes people think that this is something you are doing in the CDN [content delivery network], for instance. But when we are thinking about the edge, it's sort of the full environment. It's connected to the periphery of the cloud. So, it could be like an Azure Stack that's sitting in a corporate datacenter all the way down to like maybe this mouse you've got on the desk here that has a microcontroller that's connected. And that's increasingly going to be the case over the next several years. So, as the silicon becomes even more powerful and cheaper, it's just going to just sort of flow everywhere and we're finally going to get to this notion of ubiquitous computing. But it's not just the connectivity and the sort of availability of powerful compute. It's that the compute itself is getting powerful, especially along this dimension of AI inferencing. So, once you have a trained model, the inference part is like how the model, once it's deployed, makes decisions about recognizing an object or translating spoken language into text that you can do something with. And this is going to become a necessary component of how you write your software on the edge. So, you're going to have to have this AI layer in order to build the user experiences, whether it's conversational AI or gesture-based or just sort of building software that's able to incorporate all of the sense information that all of the individual compute nodes are gathering to do intelligent things in the environment. So, that's literally why we call it "the intelligent edge," because we think that the AI component is the inextricable part of where this technology trend is going.

Windows 10 IoT Core Services
Microsoft also announced a "limited preview" of a new Windows 10 IoT Core Services offering for partners at the Computex event, as described in this announcement. It facilitates management for Windows IoT Core operating system-based devices, adding "the ability to manage updates for the OS, apps, settings and OEM-specific files." Moreover, the service comes with "10 years of support" and follows a long-term servicing channel update model, Microsoft explained.

The management under Windows 10 IoT Core Services happens via a new Device Update Center, which shares the same content delivery network used by Windows Update. The Device Update Center lets organizations "create, customize and control device updates," and they can test updates before applying them broadly via a "flighting" capability. In addition, Windows 10 IoT Core Services has a Device Health Attestation Azure cloud service capability that checks devices at the boot-up stage, where malware can be lurking. The Device Health Attestation service lets organizations deny network access to devices or they can re-image problematic devices.

Windows 10 IoT Core Services, when available as a product, won't be a free support offering, although Microsoft plans to continue to offer a free version of its Windows 10 IoT Core OS under the semiannual channel update model. Microsoft expects to release "a broader preview" of Windows 10 IoT Core Services next month, with "general availability" (or commercial release) planned for "later this year."

Ubiquitous Computing
Microsoft claimed that its Azure cloud computing network, numbering 50 regions worldwide, gives it the ability to support "ubiquitous computing." Elements of it include:

  • Azure Stack for hybrid computing environments, a combination of dedicated hardware and software that's considered to be "an extension of Azure" for use by organizations
  • Azure IoT service for supporting IoT devices
  • Azure IoT Edge service for enabling "devices on the edge to act on their own and connect only when needed"
  • Azure Sphere, Microsoft's new microcontroller unit silicon product addition for powering IoT devices with added security

Microsoft is also touting Project Brainwave, which is "programmable hardware" that can be used to speed up AI calculations on the edge.

Always-Connected PCs
In other partner hardware device news, Microsoft noted that Samsung is yet another equipment vendor that has joined the effort in building "Always-Connected PCs." Other hardware partners that have committed to building them include Asus, HP and Lenovo.

An Always-Connect PC runs ARM-chip-based processors, such as Qualcomm's Snapdragon Mobile processors for PCs. These devices can run Universal Windows Platform (UWP) applications, as well as Win32 applications via emulation (but not 64-bit apps). They also have long battery lifespans and can be joined to an organization's domain.

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