Microsoft Build 2019 Postmortem: Bring on the graph, but hold the glitz

It was hard to top last year’s demonstration of the new Microsoft 365 experienced powered by the Microsoft Graph. The focus this year shifted to how the graph could break down application and device silos to make everyday applications more user-centric.
Written by Tony Baer (dbInsight), Contributor

The kickoff to Satya Nadella's keynote opening Microsoft Build 2019 was supposed to show the rockets that got Apollo 11 to the moon, re-experienced 50 years later through the eyes of mixed reality. With the perils of live demos, in retrospect, it shouldn't be surprising that the revisit to the moon had to be aborted

But in fact, the failings of the demo highlighted the reality that the real importance of going cloud-native, whether it is with productivity applications or mundane infrastructures like containers or databases, is not with the glitz, but with the underlying technologies inside the black box that bring connectivity at scale, and access to virtually limitless compute power and storage.

And so, the Microsoft 365 demo that re-enacted a product meeting about a new Mattel toy was impressive in showing how different people, using different devices, could interact on a level playing field. A couple of them were sporting HoloLens 2s, which are now more ergonomic than their first-generation cousins. 

But others working on plain old boring desktop PCs or slightly less boring smartphones were not left out of the action. Using the features of their own devices, each could gain equal access to viewing and manipulating objects like whiteboards; the only place where the HoloLens folks had the edge was the ability to get immersive experiences inside the virtual rendition of the physical object which in this case was a toy.

Where the demo went off track was when adding avatars, which distracted from the experience. Besides the fact that the renditions of people in avatars made them look less anthropomorphic than the avatars that appeared in the James Cameron movie of the same name, the use of avatars was just plain distracting. Even if the renditions could have been made more lifelike, they still would have added little if anything to the experience.

But before we dismiss the infatuation with the make-believe, we saw how Microsoft's experience in gaming -- a make-believe experience if there ever was one for this Baby Boomer -- paid off as it designed hardware for handling real-time IoT data at the edge. Specifically, the security that Microsoft developed for Xbox was repurposed for its new IoT device gateway, Azure Sphere. There are real-world applications that come from the world of fantasy.


For us, the reach of the Microsoft Graph is the secret sauce to what the company is focusing on with its enterprise applications. The Microsoft Graph is the API surface beneath Microsoft 365, the suite that brings together Office 365, Windows 10, and Enterprise Mobility + Security. Microsoft takes advantage of Microsoft Graph's ability to track complex relationships -- often many-to-many.

Its approach is very much in line with how graph databases have been utilized, although for different use cases. For other graph databases, examples include tracking interactions of complex IoT networks in smart cities for correlating scenarios such as traffic, energy, or water consumption; or the spread of influence as detected by the relationships of different people in social tribes that are expressed on social networks.

For Microsoft 365, there is an obvious application to organizational dynamics -- who works with whom and are they part of the same or different reporting structures. But Microsoft Graph also records the interrelationships between people, documents, and activities. And, where the device-dependent difference comes in, it tracks the relationships of people with devices. For starters, that means that if you work with Word documents, and typically work on a laptop, desktop, and smartphone, you should have equal access to the file, regardless of device. 

But it goes further than that: If you can establish ownership and access rights to the document, the Microsoft Graph provides the template for regulating who can get read and/or write access. And taking that a step further, if the data is in a portable format, why restrict it to a Word document when someone else on the team might prefer it in Excel or PowerPoint? 

At Build, Microsoft demoed the Fluid Framework. This is a developer technology that provides a componentized document model that allows authors to deconstruct content into collaborative building blocks, use them across applications, and combine them in a new, more flexible kind of document.

While this was not driven by the Microsoft Graph, we saw a similar principle with one of the new features that might truly differentiate the Chromium-based new Edge browser -- the Collections feature that will soon allow you to collapse the results of searching through multiple tabs by literally piecing them together into a canonical document that could be surfaced as, you guessed it, in Word, Excel, PowerPoint, or a web page.

The use cases we see for Microsoft Graph coincides with one of our thoughts on graph databases. We have seen a significant uptake in adoption of graph databases. And while AWS has gone out on a limb to offer its own graph database platform, it wouldn't do so if the demand weren't there. Nonetheless, we believe that the broadest application of graph database technology will be in applications. That is what the Microsoft Graph is about. Developers can get access to the API if their admins approve, as part of Microsoft 365, but it is in the context of modifying or extending the processes of the applications driven by the graph.

The use of Microsoft Graph underlies the fact, that while mixed reality avatars might catch the attention, it is the stuff in the black box that will ultimately change the way we work.

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