Big software vendors like to feather out their nest with a bed of ancillary services and functions designed to position themselves as one-stop-shop solution providers. Where successful, this means that customers can potentially avoid software integration and update issues that might otherwise hamper their day-to-day operations. It is also meant to provide customers with a no-brainer approach to staying on that vendor’s platform and roadmap, which (in theory at least) avoids other incompatibilities created when customers bring about in house customizations.
In reality, almost every medium-sized business (and bigger) will always operate with a mix of technology platforms, different databases and device form factors — but aiming for Nirvana isn’t a bad idea, even if most of us never get there.
Microsoft Power Platform
On the road to the all-encompassing single platform ambition, Microsoft is no different to any other major vendor i.e. it wants enterprises to be able to use its operating system, its software development tools, its application suite, database competencies and its wider ecosystem of functions. One such comparatively new function is Power Platform.
As we have already detailed here on forbus, Microsoft Power Platform is a coming together of Microsoft Power BI (standing for Business Intelligence), Microsoft PowerApps and Microsoft Flow, the latter being a technology that enables non-technical users to create and automate ‘workflows’ that span multiple applications and services, without help from developers.
All three of these sub-brands inside Microsoft Power Platform are essentially designed to give so-called citizen developers the power to create real IT intelligence functions inside a business, but without having to sidetrack and do a seven-year software engineering degree first.
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Premade custom AI scenarios
Newest among the Microsoft Power Platform goodies is Microsoft AI Builder, a no-code AI capability which also supports integrations with PowerApps and Flow. Microsoft AI Builder is (if you hadn’t guessed from the name) a means of shortcutting to almost ‘premade’ AI tasks that enterprises often need in regularly occurring business situations. It takes common AI scenarios and provides point-and-click solutions for app makers to solve everyday tasks like forms processing, object detection and text and binary classification.
Corporate VP of Microsoft’s Business Applications Group James Phillips has said that he believes Microsoft AI Builder is well-aligned to the needs of customers in the banking, hospitality and manufacturing industries in particular — all of which are business types that require a high degree of rapid customer feedback that could make use of AI. Surprisingly perhaps, Phillips did not list retail in that list of industry verticals, but we can infer that it’s in there.
“Microsoft AI Builder enables everyone to leverage AI and machine learning to make their apps and automations more intelligent. PowerApps already enables employees to easily create applications for their business. AI Builder now provides a way for app makers – professional and citizen developers alike – to add AI capabilities to those apps. [As a use case example], an organization may want to improve customer service so they can use AI to analyze customer feedback responses, map them into categories and generate an AI model to classify and respond to customer feedback as it’s received,” wrote Microsoft’s Phillips, in a microsoft cloudblogs posting.
Phillips has noted that the no-code AI Builder capability is also coming to Microsoft Flow. As we have already noted, Flow provides a visual experience to build everything from personal automation management workflow to more business-critical processes. Microsoft is driving AI Builder into Flow to (it hopes) make it easier for users to optimize these workflow-based processes with intelligence without having advanced knowledge of how AI works.
“[As another use case example], Flow makers can now extract meaningful data from images and text that can [help to] drive logic in [users’ workflow] processes. Today, many processes involve paper forms such as a rental or job application. Historically, the first step in processing these forms would be to have someone look at the paper and manually type in each of the fields on their PC. Now with AI Builder and Microsoft Flow, flows can automatically pick up scanned documents from an incoming email or a file server and recognize all the content. Based on the values in the form, different steps can run – from sending out simple notifications to performing a credit check,” noted Microsoft’s Phillips.
A software smörgåsbord
As is typical with Redmond’s code-level news (even though this is largely no-code or low-software), there are masses of other related technology elements here. PowerApps can now create websites that can be accessed by external users with a wide variety of identities including personal accounts, LinkedIn and others.
There are also blockchain-related technologies on offer, also presented with custom-made low-code options and other shortcuts. Microsoft is making sure users can tap into Power Platform and the Microsoft Azure blockchain service on the same plate, should they have the appetite for it.”This type of tool is in line with Microsoft Office, where Microsoft has democratized a wide variety of office functions and capabilities in developing a platform for normal work. Over time, it would not be surprising to see AI Builder increasingly integrated into the Microsoft Office Suite, just as Power BI has been, as these capabilities become normal tools for conducting basic business analysis,” said Hyoun Park, CEO and chief analyst at Boston, Massachusetts-based Amalgam insight. “That said, there’s still work to be done to make AI truly democratized and available to standard business users. Over time, Microsoft will have to increasingly work on building templates and use cases built for specific jobs and roles in AI Builder. Also, AI Builder will need to provide some feedback and training back to the business user to provide guidance in selecting more challenging aspects of AI building, such as model selection, model adjustment, and training preferences.”
As advanced as some of this stuff is, Park laments the fact that business users still lack a basic understanding of how machine learning, model selection and training and ongoing information management works. But, he acknowledges that this is important step forward in terms of Microsoft’s user reach and the acknowledgment that some level of AI development needs to be accessible for quantitative business users… and not just developers.
Where Microsoft has been (arguably) smartest of all on the road to offering what might a Unique Selling Point (USP) in this space is in ease of use factor. A good deal of the low-code software platform market still requires heavyweight developers to perform the cloud back end connection engineering first. Microsoft’s software is (in the use cases tabled so far) pretty good at ‘ingesting’ data from data sources as straightforward as Excel, an SAP or Oracle database or even a Salesforce CRM model.
Microsoft still makes coding tools for coders who want to code, but the company has firmly stepped into the burgeoning low-code no-code market too. Okay then, what’s for lunch? Instant noodles, obviously.