I'm with the Band: Microsoft talks fitness, big data, and security at ThinkNext

Collecting data is one thing, using it right is something else: Microsoft's out to showcase how to turn data into information at its shindig this week in Israel.

Yoram Yaakovi presents 'People Like You' at ThinkNext 2015 in Tel Aviv. Image: Microsoft
There's quite a bit of data out there, and there's a lot more on the way - and it finally appears, says Yoram Yaakovi, CEO of Microsoft Israel's R&D Center, that the IT industry is figuring out what to do with it.

Naturally, Microsoft is hoping for a slice of the action, with its Israel unit focusing on developing methods to gather, analyze, and utilize big data. "The technologies we are displaying here at ThinkNext show off some of the ways we are making big data work for the benefit of everyone, providing what we call Insights that will help everyone," Yaakovi said.

ThinkNext - now in its seventh year - is Microsoft Israel's big tech event of the year, and this year it drew over 1,500 participants from the IT industry, including developers, R&D managers, CTOs, entrepreneurs and startup companies, VCs, university students, researchers, and others.

The event included a keynote by Scott Guthrie, EVP of Microsoft's cloud and enterprise group, and seminars on Microsoft technologies, but most visitors came to see the tech on display - a mix of projects from both Microsoft and Israeli startups that use the Azure platform for their products. The technologies spanned a variety of hot fields such as motion detection, facial recognition, advanced information analytics, machine learning, personal assistants, augmented reality, 3D tech, and robotics.

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"So many of the new technologies depend on analytics, and this is an area where Israel has had a lot of experience," Yakovi said. This week, the company confirmed earlier reports that it was acquiring Israeli pen-technology company N-trig for some $200m. Speaking at ThinkNext, a Microsoft official confirmed the acquisition, but said the company could not yet discuss how N-Trig's technology would be integrated into Microsoft. "It's brand new, and both sides need time to settle into the idea of acquisition," the spokesperson said.

Starring at the event was Microsoft's new Band, the company's answer to the health and fitness components of Apple Watch. It's a theme that was very much on the mind of the Microsoft team this year: the venue for the event was a new basketball arena in Tel Aviv that fits in with the health and fitness apps and services Band offers, said Yaakovi.

Among the Band analysis features Microsoft touted at the event was a service called 'People Like You', which will analyze your fitness activity in a wide variety of sports, and find and recommend people who fit your profile among Band users. "It's the next level of Band," said a Microsoft spokesperson. "You can connect with others of the same weight, or who run a similar amount or are as active as you are in specific metrics." The idea is that the bigger your circle of friends with the same interests or issues, the more motivated you will be to work out.

Despite its surface similarity to the 'people you might want to get to know' features in many fitness apps, the Microsoft system "is much more sophisticated than what you get with apps that recommend running partners or groups, because it can see patterns that aren't obvious. In addition, unlike the apps, People Like You can recommend people you have never heard of, and not just someone already in your social network," said the spokesperson.

Band is just one of the many devices Microsoft plans to power with its cloud-based data analytics systems. "By the end of the decade there will be 50 billion connected devices out there," said Yaakovi. "They will all be collecting data, and what will be new will be the analysis and insights we can get from that data. The data analysis revolution will be evident in many industries, including medicine, automotive, telecom, sports, entertainment, and others. Already we see important changes through the innovation of startups that are developing solutions for analysis."

It's possible - perhaps even likely - that Microsoft will come out with other IoT devices as well, but the company is much more interested in partnering with manufacturers to get its cloud-connected tech inside. "I can see a future in which a plethora of devices by many, many manufacturers features our technology and deliver Insights," said Yaakovi. "The point is not the devices, but the cloud analysis and Insights we can provide for almost any purpose or device."

Fitness information is nice, but Insights have an important role to play in many vital industries, as well. Yaakovi gave the example of technology developed by Aorato, an Israeli firm acquired recently by Microsoft, which developed a security product for Active Directory based on anomaly analytic insights.

"As you know, Edward Snowden used his colleague's credentials at his own computer to steal the large reams of data he purloined," said Yaakovi. "It was accessed in a manner that those who were logged in - with the credentials stolen by Snowden - usually did not access, on computers they usually did not use. Yet no one noticed what was going on - the data was no doubt being collected, but there was no analysis and no insight.

"Although nobody can say for sure how events would have unfolded, I believe that if Aorato's solution had been installed at the NSA, it would have been able to detect and prevent Snowden's theft," added Yaakovi.

Indeed, at another Microsoft event this week - the Ignite conference - Microsoft announced that it would now be offering a product called Advanced Threat Analytics Evaluations, which analyzes threats to Active Directory. The new Microsoft product is thought to be directly based on Aorato's technology, and essentially a rebranding of what they bought.

Insights via Cortana, Microsoft's concierge service, are also a result of big data analytics, said Yaakovi. "We're just scratching the service of the usefulness of Cortana for analytics, and as the system gets to know a user better, it will be even more helpful."

Besides the "expected" services - like showing you a traffic map around the time you usually get ready to head out of the office - Cortana will look at all sorts of data sources to help users out.

"If Cortana sees I like a particular band - because it sees that I am listening to a lot of music from that band - it will tell me where and when they are playing in concert, and send me alerts and even offer to connect me to a ticket site when they are in my area." Siri, Microsoft spokespeople said at the event, doesn't have a chance in head-to-head competition with Cortana.

Personal insights, security insights, business insights - Microsoft's version of the future sees more apps and services (using services and technologies on Azure, of course) using more data to make life easier. "Insights from 'big data' will change the world in a fundamental way, solving many problems for people all over the world," added Yaakovi. "There's plenty of big data around, but what are we doing with it? That's the question we are going to answer."

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