Microsoft CEO lays out post-pandemic vision for work — including a new metaverse concept

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. (GeekWire File Photo)

Microsoft chairman and CEO Satya Nadella described his company’s role in a new economy and society transformed by the pandemic in a keynote address on Tuesday kicking off Microsoft’s virtual 2021 Ignite developer conference.

Nadella laid out a vision where Microsoft’s new offerings in AI, cloud, security and its productivity apps make it possible for people to edit encrypted documents simultaneously even though they work at different companies; to build specialized applications and harness AI models even if people aren’t coders; and to create virtual environments and avatars that aim to restore pre-pandemic sense of human connection, even as people continue to work remote.

“Going forward, every business process will be collaborative, powered by data and AI, and will bridge the digital and physical worlds,” Nadella said in a pre-recorded video.

When Nadella first became Microsoft’s CEO in 2014, he talked relentlessly about transforming Microsoft into a “mobile first, cloud first” company. But in a signal of how much the business landscape has been changed, first by widespread adoption of cloud technology as well as smartphones and mobile devices, and then by COVID, Nadella articulated a new vision Tuesday.

“Fundamentally, we’re moving from a mobile and cloud era to an era of ubiquitous computing and ambient intelligence, an era which will experience more digitization over the next 10 years than the last 40,” he said, adding that this year’s Ignite conference is dedicated to “what will happen over the next decade.”

Microsoft is rolling out dozens of new cloud, AI, security and productivity offerings during this year’s Ignite conference.

Accenture’s Jason Warmke (left) and Ellyn Shook demonstrated during Tuesday’s Ignite keynote how their company is using Mesh for Microsoft Teams bring new avatars to remote collaboration and meetings.

Nadella introduced a new “metaverse” concept for Microsoft Teams – which has hosted remote meetings for hundreds of millions of workers during the pandemic – in which employees navigate virtual environments as avatars. “Mesh for Teams” combines “shared holographic experiences” with existing communication tools such as virtual meetings, chats and shared documents.

The new “metaverse” model makes it possible to interact with the physical world in new ways, Nadella said, even when workers aren’t in the same location. For example, he said, Azure Digital Twins enables teams to work on physical world equipment in a virtual space and Dynamics 365 Connected Spaces allows businesses to monitor and extract data from physical environments.

Microsoft’s metaverse-related announcements come less than a week after Facebook said it would reshape its company into a new parent organization known as Meta and broaden its focus further beyond social media to developing metaverse-related experiences.

Nadella also unveiled a Microsoft 365 product called Loop, which, he said, brings together “people’s content, comments, chats, reactions and live business process data even, together into a new collaborative canvas.”

He also talked about Azure OpenAI Service, which provides access to AI models that can summarize passages and generate content and code.

And Nadella discussed a new version of Azure Arc, which aims to help customers manage data and applications across hybrid and multi-cloud environments.

“Looking back, there is no question that the past year-and-a-half has been a catalyst for real structural change across every industry from adoption of telehealth and healthcare, digital wallets in financial services, curbside pickup, contactless shopping in retail and much beyond,” Nadella said.