Microsoft debuts Azure Space to cater to the space industry, partners with SpaceX for Starlink datacenter broadband

Microsoft is taking its Azure cloud computing platform to the final frontier – space. It now has a dedicated business unit called Azure Space for that purpose, made up of industry heavyweights and engineers who are focused on space-sector services including simulation of space missions, gathering and interpreting satellite data to provide insights, and providing global satellite networking capabilities through new and expanded partnerships.

One of Microsoft’s new partners for Azure Space is SpaceX, the progenitor and major current player in the so-called ‘New Space’ industry. SpaceX will be providing Microsoft with access to its Starlink low-latency satellite based broadband network for Microsoft’s new Azure Modular Datacenter (MDC) – essentially an on-demand container-based datacenter unit that can be deployed in remote locations, either to operate on their own or boost local cababilities.

Image Credits: Microsoft

The MDC is a contained unit, and can operate off-grid using its own satellite network connectivity add-on. It’s similar in concept to the company’s work on underwater data centres, but keeping it on the ground obviously opens up more opportunities in terms of locating it where people need it, rather than having to be proximate to an ocean or sea.

The other big part of this announcement focuses on space preparedness via simulation. Microsoft revealed the Azure Orbital Emulator today, which provides in a computer emulated environment the ability to test satellites constellation operations in simulation, using both software and hardware. It’s basically aiming to provide as close to in-space conditions as are possible on the ground in order to get everything ready for coordinating large, interconnected constellations of automated satellites in low Earth orbit, an increasing need as more defense agencies and private companies pursue this approach vs. the legacy method of relying on one, two or just a few large geosynchronous spacecraft.

Image Credits: Microsoft

Microsoft says the goal with the Orbital Emulator is to train AI for use on orbital spacecraft before those spacecraft are actually launched – from the early development phase, right up to working with production hardware on the ground before it takes its trip to space. That’s definitely a big potential competitive advantage, because it should help companies spot even more potential problems early on while they’re still relatively easy to fix (not the case on orbit).

This emulated environment for on-orbit mission prep is already in use by Azure Government customers, the company notes. It’s also looking for more partners across government and industry for space-related services, including communication, national security., satellite services including observation and telemetry and more.


By Darrell Etherington

Microsoft enhances customer data platform as pandemic drives need for personalization

When Microsoft introduced its customer data platform last February the focus was on simply connecting silos of data to help customers get the data into the system, but as the pandemic has taken hold this year, customers need deeper insight into their customers and Microsoft has made some enhancements to the platform today.

James Phillips, president of Microsoft business applications says the goal of the platform is about understanding customers at a deeper level. “From that depth of understanding our customers can engage their customers through the entirety of the customer lifecycle,” Phillips told TechCrunch.

That could involve a variety of activities such personalizing offers, speaking to them in a way that they know their customers want to be spoken to, offering them new products and services that better meet their needs or supporting them better, he said.

He adds that COVID-19 has changed customer priorities and forced them to make adjustments to the way they do business and how they interact with customers. “As everything’s gone digital, the need to deeply understand your customer and to increase the efficacy of those engagements has really been heightened through this pandemic,” he said.

The company is announcing several new components to the customer data platform product to help customers build that understanding. The first is called Customer Engagement, which as the name implies takes all that data they’ve pushed to the CDP to help understand that customer better and deliver more meaningful interactions. That goes into preview today.

“Engagement Insights is about directly funneling web, mobile and connected product data back into Customer Insights to help continue to enrich that understanding of the customer in order to better serve them,” he said.

The next piece is about putting AI to work on all that data to allow marketers to make more educated predictions about the customers based on what they know about them. This takes advantage of Azure Synapse Analytics and provides a set of pre-built AI templates to help customers with elements like predicting customer churn, automating product recommendations and estimating customer lifetime value.

In addition, the company is offering a data governance product to help protect that data and it’s integrating with Microsoft Customer Voice, the company’s survey tool to give customers the ability to fill in the blanks in the data by asking the customers when all of the data doesn’t provide an answer.

Phillips says all of these capabilities are about helping customers to be more agile, so that as the world shifts, as it has so dramatically this year, businesses can be in a better position to react to those changes more quickly and meet the changing customer requirements.

It’s worth noting that Microsoft clearly isn’t alone in this type of offering, as every big company that sells marketing tools from Adobe to Salesforce to SAP is offering similar products for similar reasons.


By Ron Miller

Daily Crunch: Microsoft launches Azure Communication Services

Microsoft takes on Twilio, Google launches a work-tracking tool and Mirakl raises $300 million. This is your Daily Crunch for September 22, 2020.

The big story: Microsoft launches Azure Communication Services

Microsoft announced today that it’s ready to compete with Twilio by launching a set of features that allow developers to add voice and video calling, chat, text messages and old-school telephony to their apps.

“Azure Communication Services is built natively on top a global, reliable cloud — Azure,” wrote Microsoft’s Scott Van Vliet. “Businesses can confidently build and deploy on the same low latency global communication network used by Microsoft Teams to support 5B+ meeting minutes daily.”

This is just one of a number of announcements that Microsoft made at its Ignite conference this morning. Other additions include a platform for detecting biological threats and the Azure Orbital service for satellite operators.

The tech giants

Google launches a work-tracking tool and Airtable rival, Tables — Tables’ bots help users do things like scheduling recurring email reminders when tasks are overdue and messaging a chat room when new form submissions are received.

Amazon adds support for Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu in local Indian languages push ahead of Diwali — The company said this move should help it reach an additional 200-300 million users in India.

Pinterest breaks daily download record due to user interest in iOS 14 design ideas — Following the release of iOS 14, the excitement around the ability to customize your iPhone home screen has been paying off for Pinterest.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Mirakl raises $300 million for its marketplace platform — Mirakl helps companies launch and manage a marketplace on their e-commerce websites.

Pure Watercraft ramps up its electric outboard motors with a $23 million series A — Pure Watercraft is building an electric outboard motor that can replace a normal gas one for most boating needs.

Morgan Beller, co-creator of the Libra digital currency, just joined the venture firm NFX — And yes, that means she’s leaving Facebook.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

Despite a rough year for digital media, Blavity and The Shade Room are thriving — A recap of my Disrupt discussion with Morgan DeBaun of Blavity and Angelica Nwandu of The Shade Room.

Big tech has 2 elephants in the room: Privacy and competition — There’s clearly a nervousness among even well-established tech firms to discuss this topic.

How has Corsair Gaming posted such impressive pre-IPO numbers? — The company was founded in 1994, making it more of a mature business than a startup.

(Reminder: Extra Crunch is our subscription membership program, which aims to democratize information about startups. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

TikTok, WeChat and the growing digital divide between the US and China — Catherine Shu discusses the dramatic shift in the relationship between tech companies in both countries.

Tech must radically rethink how it treats independent contractors — Just as COVID-19 has accelerated the move to remote work, our current crisis has accelerated the trend toward hiring independent contractors.

Bose introduces a new pair of sleep-focused earbuds — The timing of the Sleepbuds II could hardly be better.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.


By Anthony Ha

Microsoft challenges Twilio with the launch of Azure Communication Services

Microsoft today announced the launch of Azure Communication Services, a new set of features in its cloud that enable developers to add voice and video calling, chat and text messages to their apps, as well as old-school telephony.

The company describes the new set of services as the “first fully managed communication platform offering from a major cloud provider,” and that seems right, given that Google and AWS offer some of these features, including the AWS notification service, for example, but not as part of a cohesive communication service. Indeed, it seems Azure Communication Service is more of a competitor to the core features of Twilio or up-and-coming MessageBird.

Over the course of the last few years, Microsoft has built up a lot of experience in this area, in large parts thanks to the success of its Teams service. Unsurprisingly, that’s something Microsoft is also playing up in its announcement.

“Azure Communication Services is built natively on top a global, reliable cloud — Azure. Businesses can confidently build and deploy on the same low latency global communication network used by Microsoft Teams to support 5B+ meeting minutes daily,” writes Scott Van Vliet, corporate vice president for Intelligent Communication at the company.

Microsoft also stresses that it offers a set of additional smart services that developers can tap into to build out their communication services, including its translation tools, for example. The company also notes that its services are encrypted to meet HIPPA and GDPR standards.

Like similar services, developers access the various capabilities through a set of new APIs and SDKs.

As for the core services, the capabilities here are pretty much what you’d expect. There’s voice and video calling (and the ability to shift between them). There’s support for chat and, starting in October, users will also be able to send text messages. Microsoft says developers will be able to send these to users anywhere, with Microsoft positioning it as a global service.

Provisioning phone numbers, too, is part of the services and developers will be able to provision those for in-bound and out-bound calls, port existing numbers, request new ones and — most importantly for contact-center users — integrate them with existing on-premises equipment and carrier networks.

“Our goal is to meet businesses where they are and provide solutions to help them be resilient and move their business forward in today’s market,” writes Van Vliet. “We see rich communication experiences – enabled by voice, video, chat, and SMS – continuing to be an integral part in how businesses connect with their customers across devices and platforms.”


By Frederic Lardinois

Microsoft brings new robotic process automation features to its Power Platform

Earlier this year, Microsoft acquired Softomotive, a player in the low-code robotic process automation space with a focus on Windows. Today, at its Ignite conference, the company is launching Power Automate Desktop, a new application based on Softomotive’s technology that lets anyone automate desktop workflows without needing to program.

“The big idea of Power Platform is that we want to go make it so development is accessible to everybody,” Charles Lamanna, Microsoft’s corporate VP for its low-code platform, told me. “And development includes understanding and reporting on your data with Power BI, building web and mobile applications with Power Apps, automating your tasks — whether it’s through robotic process automation or workflow automation — with Power Automate, or building chatbots and chat-based experiences with Power Virtual Agent.”

Power Automate already allowed users to connect web-based applications, similar to Zapier and IFTTT, but the company also launched a browser extension late last year to help users connect native system components to Power Automate. Now, with the integration of the Softomotive technology and the launch of this new low-code Windows application, it’s taking this integration into the native Windows user interface one step further.

“Everything still runs in the cloud and still connects to the cloud, but you now have a rich desktop application to author and record your UI automations,” Lamanna explained. He likened it to an “ultimate connector,” noting that the “ultimate API is just the UI.”

He also stressed that the new app feels like any other modern Office app, like Outlook (which is getting a new Mac version today, by the way) or Word. And like the modern versions of those apps, Power Automate Desktop derives a lot of its power from being connected to the cloud.

It’s also worth noting that Power Automate isn’t just a platform for automating simple two or three-step processes (like sending you a text message when your boss emails you), but also for multistep, business-critical workflows. T-Mobile, for example, is using the platform to automate some of the integration processes between its systems and Sprint.

Lamanna noted that for some large enterprises, adopting these kinds of low-code services necessitates a bit of a culture shift. IT still needs to have some insights into how these tools are used, after all, to ensure that data is kept safe, for example.

Another new feature the company announced today is an integration between the Power Platform and GitHub, which is now in public preview. The idea here is to give developers the ability to create their own software lifecycle workflows. “One of the core ideas of Power Platform is that it’s low code,” Lamanna said. “So it’s built first for business users, business analysts, not the classical developers. But pro devs are welcome. The saying I have is: we’re throwing a party for business users, but pro devs are also invited to the party.” But to get them onto the platform, the team wants to meet them where they are and let them use the tools they already use — and that’s GitHub (and Visual Studio and Visual Studio Code).


By Frederic Lardinois

Microsoft’s Edge browser is coming to Linux in October

Microsoft’s Edge browser is coming to Linux, starting with the Dev channel. The first of these previews will go live in October.

When Microsoft announced that it would switch its Edge browser to the Chromium engine, it vowed to bring it to every popular platform. At the time, Linux wasn’t part of that list, but by late last year, it became clear that Microsoft was indeed working on a Linux version. Later, at this year’s Build, a Microsoft presenter even used it during a presentation.

Image Credits: Microsoft

Starting in October, Linux users will be able to either download the browser from the Edge Insider website or through their native package managers. Linux users will get the same Edge experience as users on Windows and macOS, as well as access to its built-in privacy and security features. For the most part, I would expect the Linux experience to be on par with that on the other platforms.

Microsoft also today announced that its developers have made more than 3,700 commits to the Chromium project so far. Some of this work has been on support for touchscreens, but the team also contributed to areas like accessibility features and developer tools, on top of core browser fundamentals.

Currently, Microsoft Edge is available on Windows 7, 8 and 10, as well as macOS, iOS and Android.


By Frederic Lardinois

Microsoft updates its Endpoint Manager with improved macOS support and more

At its Ignite conference today, Microsoft announced a number of new features for the Microsoft Endpoint Manager, the company’s unified platform for managing and securing devices in an enterprise environment. The service, which combines the features of the Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager with the cloud-based tools of Intune, launched just under a year ago. Today’s updates build on the foundation the team created at the time and add improved macOS and iPad support, as well as new tools for connecting mobile devices to on-premises apps and additional productivity tools based on the date the company gathers from the service. The company is also making it easier for corporate IT departments to provision devices for employees remotely.

If anything, the pandemic has only accelerated both the growth of this business for Microsoft and the need for companies to manage their remote devices.

“It really is about bringing this cloud and all the intelligence that we had in Intune together with Config Manager and making it act as one,” Brad Anderson, Microsoft corporate VP for the Commercial Management Experiences team, told me. “And it’s been so fascinated to see how the pandemic accelerated people wanting and needing to use that. When the pandemic first hit – and as I go back to March 8th or 10th, in the US, the calls that I was having almost every day with CIOs centered around, ‘my VPN is overwhelmed. How am I going to patch on keep all my systems updated?’”

Today’s announcements build on the work Microsoft has done on this service over the course of the last year. After launching support for scripting on macOS earlier this year, for example, the company today announced a new “first-class management experience on macOS” that brings deploy scripts, but also improved enrollment experiences and app lifecycle management feature to the platform.

Endpoint Manager now also supports Apple’s Shared iPad for Business functionality and will help businesses deploy iPads to their users and allow them to log in with Azure Active Directory accounts. This gives users two separate portions on the device: one for work and one for everything else.

Another new feature is Microsoft Tunnel. This gives businesses a VPN that can cover the entire device or single apps to ensure that their employees’ devices are secure and compliant with their internal policy to access their networks.

“The key thing [with Microsoft Tunnel] is that this is all integrated into our conditional access,” Anderson explained. “And so when that VPN comes up, before access is granted to the data or to the apps, the conditional access engine that we’ve built inside of Microsoft 365 has that point of view on the trust of the identity and the trust of the device. That really is the key differentiator on that. I’ll tell you, between you and I, that one feature is probably the single feature that customers who are running another MDM and then the Microsoft Endpoint Manager — that’s the one they’re waiting for.”

Endpoint Manager now also supports the Windows Virtual Desktop (WVD) environment. That’s been a massive growth area for the company — one that has only been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. As Anderson told me, the company saw 10x growth for WVD through the pandemic. “Now, Windows Virtual Desktop is that first-class citizen inside Microsoft Endpoint Manager. So you can manage your virtual endpoints just like you manage your physical endpoints. All your policies are applicable, all your apps are clickable. And it just makes it easier to be able to use that as one of the tools you have to empower your users,” he said.

Another area of Endpoint Manager, which may only seem tangentially related at first, is Microsoft’s Productivity Score. There are two aspects to this service, though: employee experience and technology experience. Productivity Score is meant to help businesses better understand how their employees are working — and identify areas where companies can improve. On the technology side, that also means understanding which apps crash, for example, or why laptops slow down.

“Here’s one of the key scenarios,” said Anderson. “We’ll get a call every once in a while that says, like, ‘hey, my users are all having a great experience with Office 365 but I’ve got a handful of users for whom it’s slow.’ More often than not, that’s a networking issue. And so every time a user, for example, opens a file or saves a file, opens an attachment, we get telemetry back that helps us understand the operations of that. We probably know when an ISP in the south of France sneezes, because Office 365 is so ubiquitous now.”

The other new feature here is what Microsoft calls Endpoint Analytics. With this, Microsoft can now provide businesses with details information about when apps on their employees’ devices crash – no matter whether that’s an internal app, a third-party service — or a Microsoft app.

In addition to these technology scores, Productivity Score is also getting new categories like meetings, so managers can see how many meetings their employees have, as well as a new teamwork category.


By Frederic Lardinois

Microsoft launches new Cortana features for business users

Cortana may have failed as a virtual assistant for consumers, but Microsoft is still betting on it (or at least its brand) for business use cases, now that it has rebranded it as a ‘personal productivity assistant’ as part of Microsoft 365. Today, at its Ignite conference, Microsoft launched and announced a number of new Cortana services for business users.

These include the general availability of Cortana for the new Microsoft Teams displays the company is launching in partnership with a number of hardware vendors. You can think of these as dedicated smart displays for Teams that are somewhat akin to Google Assistant-enabled smart displays, for example — but with the sole focus on meetings. These days, it’s hard to enable a device like this without support for a voice assistant, so there you go. It’ll be available in September in English in the U.S. and will then roll out to Australia, Canada, the UK and India in the coming months.

In addition to these Teams devices, which Microsoft is not necessarily positioning for meeting rooms but as sidekicks to a regular laptop or desktop, Cortana will also soon come to Teams Rooms devices. Once we go back to offices and meeting rooms, after all, few people will want to touch a shared piece of hardware, so a touchless experience is a must.

For a while now, Microsoft has also been teasing more email-centric Cortana services. Play My Emails, a service that reads you your email out aloud and that’s already available in the U.S. on iOS and Android is coming to n Australia, Canada, the UK and India in the coming months. But more importantly, later this month, Outlook for iOS users will be able to interact with their inbox by voice, initiate calls to email senders and play emails from specific senders.

Cortana can now also send you daily briefing emails if you are a Microsoft 365 Enterprise users. This feature is now generally available and will get better meeting preparation, an integration with Microsoft To Do and other new features in the coming months.

And if you’re using Cortana on Windows 10, this chat-based app now let you compose emails, for example (at least if you speak English and are in the U.S.). And if you so desire, you can now use a wake word to launch it.


By Frederic Lardinois

Microsoft Teams gets breakout rooms, custom layouts and virtual commutes

Unsurprisingly, Teams has become a major focus for Microsoft during the COVID-19 pandemic and so it’s no surprise that the company is using its annual Ignite IT conference to announce a number of new features for the services.

Today’s announcements follow the launch of features like Together Mode and dynamic view earlier this summer.

Together Mode, which puts cutouts of meeting participants in different settings, is getting a bit of an update today with the launch of new scenes: auditoriums, coffee shops and conference rooms. Like before, the presenter chooses the scene, but what’s new now is that Microsoft is also now using machine learning to ensure that participants are automatically centered in their virtual chairs, making the whole scene look just a little bit more natural (and despite what Microsoft’s research shows, I can never help but think that this all looks a bit goofy, maybe because it reminds me of the opening credits of the Muppet Show).

Image Credits: Microsoft

Also new in Teams is custom layouts, which allow presenters to customize how their presentations — and their own video feeds — appear. With this, a presenter can superimpose her own video image over the presentation, for example.

Image Credits: Microsoft

Breakout rooms, a feature that is getting a lot of use in Zoom these days, is now also coming to Teams. Microsoft calls it the most requested feature in Teams and like in similar products, it also meeting organizers to split participants into smaller groups — and the meeting organizer can then go from room to room. Unsurprisingly, this feature is especially popular with teachers, though companies, too, often use it to facilitate brainstorming sessions, for example.

Image Credits: Microsoft

After exhausting all your brainstorming power in those breakout rooms and finishing up your meeting, Teams can now also send you an automatic recap of a meeting that includes a recording, transcript, shared files and more. These recaps will automatically appear on your Outlook calendar. In the future, Microsoft will also enable the ability to automatically store these recordings on SharePoint.

For companies that regularly host large meetings, Microsoft will launch support for up to 1,000 participants in the near future. Attendees in these meetings will get the full Teams experience, Microsoft promises. Later, Microsoft will also enable view-only meetings for up to 20,000 participants. Both of these features will become available as part of a new ‘Advanced Communications’ plan, which is probably no surprise, given how much bandwidth and compute power it will likely take to manage a 1,000-person meetings.

Image Credits: Microsoft

Microsoft also made two hardware announcements related to Team today. The first is the launch of what it calls ‘Microsoft Teams panels,’ which are essentially small tablets that businesses can put outside of their meeting rooms for wayfinding. One cool feature here — especially as business start planning their post-pandemic office strategy — is that these devices will be able to use information from the cameras in the room to count how many people are attending a meeting in person and then show remaining room capacity, for example.

The company also today announced that the giant Surface Hub 2S 85-inch model will be available in January 2021.

And there is more. Microsoft is also launching new Teams features for front-line workers to help schedule shifts, alert workers when they are using Teams off-shift and praise badges that enable organizations to recognize workers (though those workers would probably prefer hard cash over a digital badge).

Also new is an integration between Teams and RealWear head-mounted devices for remote collaboration and a new Walkie Talkie app for Android.

And since digital badges aren’t usually enough to improve employee wellbeing, Microsoft is also adding a new set of wellbeing features to Teams. These provide users with personalized recommendations to help change habits and improve wellbeing and productivity.

Image Credits: Microsoft

That includes a new ‘virtual commute’ feature that includes an integration with Headspace and an emotional check-in experience.

I’ve always been a fan of short and manageable commutes for getting some distance between work and home, but that’s not exactly a thing right now. Maybe Headspace works as an example, but there’s only so much Andy Puddicombe I can take. Still, I think I’ll keep my emotional check-ins to myself, though Microsoft obviously notes that it will keep all of that information private.

And while businesses now care about your emotional wellbeing (because it’s closely related to your productivity), managers mostly care about the wor you get done. For them, Workplace Analytics is coming to Teams, giving “managers line of sight into teamwork norms like after-hours collaboration, focus time, meeting effectiveness, and cross-company connections. These will then be compared to averages among similar teams to provide managers with actionable insights.”

If that doesn’t make your manager happy, what will? Maybe a digital praise badge?


By Frederic Lardinois

Microsoft brings data services to its Arc multi-cloud management service

Microsoft today launched a major update to its Arc multi-cloud service that allows Azure customers to run and manage workloads across clouds — including those of Microsoft’s competitors — and their on on-premises data centers. First announced at Microsoft Ignite in 2019, Arc was always meant to not just help users manage their servers but to also allow them to run data services like Azure SQL and Azure Database for PostgreSQL close to where their data sits.

Today, the company is making good on this promise with the preview launch of Azure Arc enabled data services with support for, as expected, Azure SQL and Azure Database for PostgreSQL.

In addition, Microsoft is making the core feature of Arc, Arc enabled servers, generally available. These are the tools at the core of the service that allow enterprises can use the standard Azure Portal to manage and monitor their Windows and Linux servers across their multi-cloud and edge environments.

Image Credits: Microsoft

“We’ve always known that enterprises are looking to unlock the agility of the cloud — they love the app model, they love the business model — while balancing a need to maintain certain applications and workloads on premises,” Rohan Kumar, Microsoft’s corporate VP for Azure Data said. “A lot of customers actually have a multi-cloud strategy. In some cases, they need to keep the data specifically for regulatory compliance. And in many cases, they want to maximize their existing investments. They’ve spent a lot of CapEx.”

As Kumar stressed, Microsoft wants to meet customers where they are, without forcing them to adopt a container architecture, for example, or replace their specialized engineered appliances to use Arc.

“Hybrid is really [about] providing that flexible choice to our customers, meeting them where they are, and not prescribing a solution,” he said.

He admitted that this approach makes engineering the solution more difficult, but the team decided that the baseline should be a container endpoint and nothing more. And for the most part, Microsoft packaged up the tools its own engineers were already using to run Azure services on the company’s own infrastructure to manage these services in a multi-cloud environment.

“In hindsight, it was a little challenging at the beginning, because, you can imagine, when we initially built them, we didn’t imagine that we’ll be packaging them like this. But it’s a very modern design point,” Kumar said. But the result is that supporting customers is now relatively easy because it’s so similar to what the team does in Azure, too.

Kumar noted that one of the selling points for the Azure Data Services is also that the version of Azure SQL is essentially evergreen, allowing them to stop worrying about SQL Server licensing and end-of-life support questions.


By Frederic Lardinois

The $10B JEDI contract is locked, loaded, and still completely stuck

The other day I took a moment to count the number of stories we’ve done on TechCrunch on the DoD’s $10 billion, decade-long, winner-take-all, JEDI cloud contract. This marks the 30th time we’ve written about this deal over the last two years, and it comes after a busy week last week in JEDI cloud contract news.

That we’re still writing about this is fairly odd if you consider the winner was announced last October when the DoD chose Microsoft, but there is no end in sight to the on-going drama that is this procurement process.

Government contracts don’t typically catch our attention at TechCrunch, but this one felt different early on. There was the size and scope of the deal of course. There was the cute play on the Star Wars theme. There was Oracle acting like a batter complaining to the umpire before the first pitch was thrown. There was the fact that everyone thought Amazon would win until it didn’t.

There was a lot going on. In fact, there’s still a lot going on with this story.

Oracle doth protest too much

Let’s start with Oracle, which dispatched CEO Safra Catz to the White House in April 2018 even before the RFP had been written. She was setting the stage to complain that the deal was going to be set up to favor Amazon, something that Oracle alleged until the day Microsoft was picked the winner.

Catz had been on the Trump transition team and so had the ear of the president. While the president certainly interjected himself in this process, it’s not known how much influence that particular meeting might have had. Suffice to say that it was only the first volley in Oracle’s long war against the JEDI contract procurement process.

It would include official complaints with the Government Accountability Office and a federal lawsuit worth not coincidentally $10 billion. It would claim the contract favored Amazon. It would argue that the one-vendor approach wasn’t proper. It would suggest that because the DoD had some former Amazon employees helping write the RFP, that it somehow favored Amazon. The GAO and two court cases found otherwise, ruling against Oracle every single time.

It’s worth noting that the Court of Appeals ruling last week indicated that Oracle didn’t even meet some of the basic contractual requirements, all the while complaining about the process itself from the start.

Amazon continues to press protests

Nobody was more surprised that Amazon lost the deal than Amazon itself. It still believes to this day that it is technically superior to Microsoft and that it can offer the DoD the best approach. The DoD doesn’t agree. On Friday, it reaffirmed its choice of Microsoft. But that is not the end of this, not by a long shot.

Amazon has maintained since the decision was made last October that the decision-making process had been tainted by presidential interference in the process. They believe that because of the president’s personal dislike of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who also owns the Washington Post, he inserted himself in the process to prevent Bezos’ company from winning that deal.

In January, Amazon filed a motion to stop work on the project until this could all be sorted out. In February, a judge halted work on the project until Amazon’s complaints could be heard by the court. It is September and that order is still in place.

In a blog post on Friday, Amazon reiterated its case, which is based on presidential interference and what it believes is technical superiority. “In February, the Court of Federal Claims stopped performance on JEDI. The Court determined AWS’s protest had merit, and that Microsoft’s proposal likely failed to meet a key solicitation requirement and was likely deficient and ineligible for award. Our protest detailed how pervasive these errors were (impacting all six technical evaluation factors), and the Judge stopped the DoD from moving forward because the very first issue she reviewed demonstrated serious flaws,” Amazon wrote in the post.

Microsoft for the win?

Microsoft on the other hand went quietly about its business throughout this process. It announced Azure Stack, a kind of portable cloud that would work well as a field operations computer system. It beefed up its government security credentials.

Even though Microsoft didn’t agree with the one-vendor approach indicating that the government would benefit more from the multi-vendor approach many of its customers were taking, it made clear if those were the rules, it was in it to win it — and win it did, much to the surprise of everyone, especially Amazon.

Yet here we are, almost a year later and in spite of the fact that the DoD found once again, after further review, that Microsoft is still the winner, the contract remains in limbo. Until that pending court case is resolved, we will continue to watch and wait and wonder if this will ever be truly over, and the JEDI cloud contract will actually be implemented.


By Ron Miller

DoD reaffirms Microsoft has won JEDI cloud contract, but Amazon legal complaints still pending

We have seen a lot of action this week as the DoD tries to finally determine the final winner of the $10 billion, decade long DoD JEDI cloud contract. Today, the DoD released a statement that after reviewing the proposals from finalists Microsoft and Amazon again, it reiterated that Microsoft was the winner of the contract.

“The Department has completed its comprehensive re-evaluation of the JEDI Cloud proposals and determined that Microsoft’s proposal continues to represent the best value to the Government. The JEDI Cloud contract is a firm-fixed-price, indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity contract that will make a full range of cloud computing services available to the DoD,” The DoD said in a statement.

This comes on the heels of yesterday’s Court of Appeals decision denying Oracle’s argument that the procurement process was flawed and that there was a conflict of interest because a former Amazon employee helped write the requirements for the RFP.

While the DoD has determined that it believes that Microsoft should still get the contract, after selecting them last October,  that doesn’t mean that this is the end of the line for this long-running saga. In fact, a federal judge halted work on the project in February pending a hearing on an on-going protest from Amazon, which believes it should have won based on merit, and the fact it believes the president interfered with the procurement process to prevent Jeff Bezos, who owns the Washington Post from getting the lucrative contract.

The DoD confirmed that the project could not begin until the legal wrangling was settled. “While contract performance will not begin immediately due to the Preliminary Injunction Order issued by the Court of Federal Claims on February 13, 2020, DoD is eager to begin delivering this capability to our men and women in uniform,” the DoD reported in a statement.

A Microsoft spokesperson said the company was ready to get to work on the project as soon as it got the OK to proceed. “We appreciate that after careful review, the DoD confirmed that we offered the right technology and the best value. We’re ready to get to work and make sure that those who serve our country have access to this much needed technology,” a Microsoft spokesperson told TechCrunch.

While it takes us one step closer to the end of the road for this long-running drama, it won’t be over until the court rules on Amazon’s arguments.

Note: We sent a request for comment to Amazon, and will update the story if we hear back from them.


By Ron Miller

Oracle loses $10B JEDI cloud contract appeal yet again

Oracle was never fond of the JEDI cloud contract process, that massive $10 billion, decade-long Department of Defense cloud contract that went to a single vendor. It was forever arguing to anyone who would listen that that process was faulty and favored Amazon.

Yesterday it lost another round in court when the U.S. Court of Appeals rejected the database giant’s argument that the procurement process was flawed because it went to a single vendor. It also didn’t buy that there was a conflict of interest because a former Amazon employee was involved in writing the DoD’s request for proposal criteria.

On the latter point, the court wrote, “The court addressed the question whether the contracting officer had properly assessed the impact of the conflicts on the procurement and found that she had.”

Further, the court found that Oracle’s case didn’t have merit in some cases because it failed to meet certain basic contractual criteria. In other cases, it didn’t find that the DoD violated any specific procurement rules with this bidding process.

This represents the third time the company has tried to appeal the process in some way, four if you include direct executive intervention with the president. In fact, even before the RFP had been released in April 2018, CEO Safra Catz brought complaints to the president that the bid favored Amazon.

In November 2018, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) denied Oracle’s protest that it favored Amazon or any of the other points in their complaint. The following month, the company filed a $10 billion lawsuit in federal court, which was denied last August. Yesterday’s ruling is on the appeal of that decision.

It’s worth noting that for all its complaints that the deal favored Amazon, Microsoft actually won the bid. Even with that determination, the deal remains tied up in litigation as Amazon has filed multiple complaints, alleging that the president interfered with the deal and that they should have won on merit.

As with all things related to this contract, the drama has never stopped.


By Ron Miller

Microsoft brings transcriptions to Word

Microsoft today launched Transcribe in Word, its new transcription service for Microsoft 365 subscribers, into general availability. It’s now available in the online version of Word, with other platforms launching later. In addition, Word is also getting new dictation features, which now allow you to use your voice to format and edit your text, for example.

As the name implies, this new feature lets you transcribe conversations, both live and pre-recorded, and then edit those transcripts right inside of Word. With this, the company goes head-to-head with startups like Otter and Google’s Recorder app, though they all have their own pros and cons.

Image Credits: Microsoft

To get started with Transcribe in Word, you simply head for the dictate button in the menu bar and click on ‘transcribe.’ From there, you can record a conversation as it happens — by recording it directly through a speakerphone and your laptop’s microphone, for example — or by recording it in some other way and then uploading that file. The service accepts .mp3, .wav, .m4a and .mp4 files.

As Microsoft Principal Group PM Manager for Natural User Interface & Incubation, Dan Parish, noted in a press briefing ahead of today’s announcement, when you record a call live, the transcription actually runs in the background while you conduct your interview, for example. The team purposely decided not to show you the live transcript, though, because its user research showed that it was distracting. I admit that I like to see the live transcript in Otter and Recorder, but maybe I’m alone in that.

Like with other services, Transcribe in Word lets you click on individual paragraphs in the transcript and then listen to that at a variety of speeds. Since the automated transcript will inevitably have errors in it, that’s a must-have feature. Sadly, though, Transcribe doesn’t let you click on individual words.

One major limitation of the service right now is that if you like to record offline and then upload your files, you’ll be limited to 300 minutes, without the ability to extend this for an extra fee, for example. I know I often transcribe far more than 5 hours of interviews in any given month, so that limit seems low, especially given that Otter provides me with 6,000 minutes on its cheapest paid plan. The max length for a transcript on Otter is 4 hours while Microsoft’s only limit for is a 200MB file upload limit, with no limits on live recordings.

Another issue I noticed here is that if you mistakenly exit the tab with Word in it, the transcription process will stop and there doesn’t seem to be a way to restart it.

It also takes quite a while for the uploaded files to be transcribed. It takes roughly as long as the conversations I’ve tried to transcribe), but the results are very good — and often better than those of competing services. Transcribe for Word also does a nice job separating out the different speakers in a conversation. For privacy reasons, you must assign your own names to those — even when you regularly record the same people.

It’d be nice to get the same feature in something like OneNote, for example, and my guess is Microsoft may expand this to its note-taking app over time. To me, that’s the more natural place for it.

Image Credits: Microsoft

The new dictation features in Word now let you give commands like “bold the last sentence,” for example, and say “percentage sign” or “ampersand” if you need to add those symbols to a text (or “smiley face,” if those are the kinds of texts you write in Word).

Even if you don’t often need to transcribe text, this new feature shows how Microsoft is now using its subscription service to launch new premium features to convert free users to paying ones. I’d be surprised if tools like the Microsoft Editor (which offers more features for paying users), this transcription service, as well as some of the new AI features in the likes of Excel and PowerPoint, didn’t help to convert some users into paying ones, especially now that the company has combined Office 365 and Microsoft 365 for consumers into a single bundle. After all, just a subscription to something like Grammarly and Otter would be significantly more expensive than a Microsoft 365 subscription.

 


By Frederic Lardinois

Meet the anti-antitrust startup club

When Congress called in tech CEOs to testify a few weeks ago, it felt like a defining moment. Hundreds of startups have become unicorns, with the largest worth more than $1 trillion (or perhaps $2 trillion). Indeed, modern tech companies have become so entrenched, Facebook is the only one of the Big Five American tech shops worth less than 13 figures.

The titanic valuations of many companies are predicated on current performance, cash on hand and lofty expectations for future growth. The pandemic has done little to stem Big Tech’s forward march and many startups have seen growth rates accelerate as other sectors rushed to support a suddenly remote workforce.

But inside tech’s current moment in the sun is a concern that Congress worked to highlight: are these firms behaving anti-competitively?

By now you’ve heard the arguments concerning why Big Tech may be too big, but there’s a neat second story that we, the Equity crew, have been chatting about: some startups are racing into the big kill zone.

They have to be a bit foolhardy to take on Google Gmail and Search, Amazon’s e-commerce platform or Apple’s App Store. Yet, there are startups targeting all of these categories and more, some flush with VC funding from investors who are eager to take a swing at tech’s biggest players

If the little companies manage to carve material market share for themselves, arguments that Big Tech was just too big to kill — let alone fail — will dissolve. But today, their incumbency is a reality and these startups are merely bold.

Still, when we look at the work being done, there are enough companies staring down the most valuable companies in American history (on an unadjusted basis) that we had to shout them out. Say hello to the “anti-antitrust club.”

Hey and Superhuman are coming after Gmail

Gmail has been the undisputed leader in consumer email for years (if not enterprise email, where Microsoft has massive inroads due to Exchange and Outlook). Startups have contested that market, including Mailbox, which sold to Dropbox for about $100 million back in 2013, but whenever a new feature came along that might entice users, Gmail managed to suck it up into its app.


By Natasha Mascarenhas