man walking past neon sign that says "NEWS"
PHOTO: Lora Ohanessian

Two of the most important developer conferences for the digital workplace took place this week, namely Microsoft Build and Google I/O. Among the many announcements made during the Microsoft Build conference, including major releases in artificial intelligence and internet of things, the big announcement related to Microsoft 365 and Microsoft's plans to put it at the heart of the digital workplace.

Before we dive into the news, it's worth nothing this was probably the first year when another product overshadowed Windows at the Build conference. While Windows wasn’t forgotten, the focus was clearly on the multiple elements that go into a digital workplace. Microsoft spoke of the challenges of bringing in all of the different processes and elements and how to do so using Microsoft Graph, which the company describes as "the API for Microsoft 365."

With Graph, companies can pull third-party apps into the Microsoft 365 environment. Microsoft Graph is Microsoft’s developer platform that connects multiple services and devices. Initially released in 2015, Microsoft Graph builds on Office 365 APIs and allows developers to integrate their services with Microsoft products, including Windows, Office 365 and Azure. Graph is part of Microsoft’s workplace "unity" drive and combines Office 365, Windows 10 and Enterprise Mobility and Security. Microsoft sells Graph in two tiers to cover the business spectrum: Microsoft 365 Enterprise and Microsoft 365 Business.

In a post about this future vision, Joe Belfiore, corporate vice president in Microsoft's Operating Systems Group explained how all this will work: “Last year at Build, you heard us talk about our commitment to meeting our customers where they are — across platforms. We’re expanding this work to not only bring more Microsoft 365 services across platforms and into applications, but to better connect customers’ existing PC experiences with their phones, helping to increase engagement for developers." 

One of the key collaboration offerings on the way is deeper SharePoint integration into Microsoft Teams, enabling people to pin a SharePoint page directly into a Teams channel to support deeper collaboration. Developers can use modern script-based frameworks like React within projects to add more pieces that can be added and organized within SharePoint pages. As well as the phone to PC connection, new Microsoft 365 features also included an updated Microsoft Launcher application for easier access to business apps via Microsoft Intune, Updates to Sets, support for adaptive cards, and more.

Microsoft also unveiled a new scheme at Build that will ensure that, starting this year, 95 percent of the revenue from consumer applications, including both individual applications and in-app purchases, will go to the developer if the sale is generated from a direct or deep link.

Microsoft is clearly trying to cover all of the collaboration scenarios. The announcements out of Build were a strong reflection of Microsoft’s wider goal of unifying its entire portfolio in order to help workers be more productive.

Google Gives Drive a Makeover

Google also made its fair share of interesting releases and new features at its Google I/O developer conference. With Google investing so heavily in artificial intelligence (AI), much of the talk this week was about new additions to the Google stable that will be driven by AI. In fact, Google is betting so hard on AI in the workplace that it is renaming its Google Research division "Google AI."

But that’s not all. Following the recent upgrade of Gmail, Google has turned its attention to Google Drive, the place where Google users store, synchronize and share files across devices. Drive, as Google has pointed out on many occasions, is the very heart of its digital collaboration and workplace strategy.

While the changes won’t impact the functionality, it will change the look and feel of drive so that it looks more like the new Gmail than the old Drive. In a blog post, Google explained: “There’s no change in functionality, but some icons and buttons have moved, and there’s a range of visual tweaks to align with Google’s latest material design principles. We built this new interface to create a responsive and efficient experience for Drive users, and to feel cohesive with other G Suite products, such as the recently redesigned Gmail.”

It’s only a small change, but will bring continuity to the G Suite design across the board. Google says the new redesign is available to all G Suite editions. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should notice it over the coming days.

Gmail Uses AI To ‘Write’ Emails

Another Google announcement from the conference worth mentioning: You may recall last year when Gmail introduced functionality called Smart Reply that helped you quickly reply to emails. The company has now gone a step further and has introduced Smart Compose, seemingly for those who can’t be bothered to write their own emails.

Smart Compose is powered by AI and will help you compose new emails from scratch. From your greeting to your closing (and common phrases in between), Smart Compose suggests complete sentences for your emails so you can draft them with ease. According to Google it operates in the background, allowing you to write an email as you normally would, but offering suggestions as you type. When you see a suggestion that you like, click the “tab” button to use it.

In theory this feature can help workers save time, by cutting back on repetitive writing and reducing spelling and grammatical mistakes. It can even suggest relevant contextual phrases. Smart Compose will appear in the new Gmail for consumers in the next few weeks and will be made available for G Suite customers in the workplace in the coming months.

Zoho Continues to Expand Its Market

Also this week, Chennai, India-based productivity vendor Zoho launched in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) after digging deep into the U.S. and European markets. 

Zoho, you may recall released a new offering last year called Zoho One. Zoho One includes more than 40 integrated web applications and an equal number of mobile apps, all accessed through a single sign-on and managed with a centralized admin and provisioning panel. More to the point, it offers this product for $30 per user per month. The Zoho One unified approach to software development is more like an operating system for business than a set of individual products.

Zoho has steadily increased its focus on the UAE market over the last year. Starting in November 2017, Zoho launched a VAT-ready UAE version of its accounting solution, Zoho Books, allowing companies to easily file their VAT returns in compliance with the latest tax laws.

At the time of the launch of Zoho One, Raju Vegesna, Chief Evangelist of Zoho, said the company was thinking about a market of a billion users and the $30 price tag was part of that strategy. The company hasn’t said where it will be heading next, but to capture a market of one billion users, there will have to be more moves soon.

Dropbox Makes Good

One final item for this week comes from Dropbox. Earlier this week, Dropbox posted its first set of results since going public in March, and it all looks quite positive. Its revenue hit $316.3 million versus the previous year's $309.2 million representing a year over year revenue growth of 28 percent. It also announced it now has 11.5 million paying users, a 24 percent jump from last year.

Dropbox, which started as a free service to share and store photos, music and other large files, appears to be making its enterprise software offering work. The company, now valued at $12.5 billion on the public markets, began trading on the Nasdaq at the end of March in what was widely considered a successful IPO.