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Microsoft Readies a Virtual Assistant for the Corporate World

An app that tries to anticipate the information needs of office workers is a test of how Microsoft might operate under Satya Nadella.

Microsoft’s reputation for innovation has suffered in recent years despite the company’s undeniable prowess in research and engineering. But buried within a March announcement of iPhone and iPad apps for Microsoft Office was word of a new app that could put the company at the forefront of productivity software again.

It’s called Microsoft Oslo, and it acts like a kind of virtual assistant. It draws on online content and a company’s internal data to offer important information, context, and contacts when they are needed, before you even think to ask. Oslo, which is currently available only in a limited-release test, will be included in Office 365, Microsoft’s subscription-based productivity software for PCs and mobile devices, in the second half of 2014.

Oslo examines what you’re working on to curate a selection of articles to read, Web pages to visit, videos to view, and podcasts to hear, all presented on a Pinterest-like page of clickable tiles.

For instance, if you’re about to attend a meeting, your Oslo board might present a blog post written by the meeting’s leader, an article on the topic of discussion, and relevant news about your company’s competitors. The app also mines a few specific types of internal information, making it easy to discover, say, colleagues who have expertise in projects you’re working on. That could be an attractive prospect for organizations too large for everyone to keep track of everyone else’s activities.

“It knows everything I’m doing—what I’m reading, what I’m liking, who I’m following, the people I’m interacting with, who I’m responding to fastest—and serves up a personalized experience about what content is most interesting, what things I should be involved in, what people I should interact with,” says Julia White, general manager of the Microsoft Office suite. “My work is no longer about who sent me e-mail most recently; it’s about what’s most important to me.”

Oslo is the first app built on a platform known as the Office Graph, a database developed by the former employees of Fast Search & Transfer in Oslo, Norway, which Microsoft acquired in 2009. The Office Graph gathers information from the spectrum of Microsoft enterprise products (purportedly taking care to distinguish between public and private information) and uses machine-learning algorithms to identify useful patterns.

Oslo looks like a corporate manager’s answer to Google Now, which runs in the background on Android devices, waiting for the moment to pop up with timely information about traffic patterns or sports scores (see “Google’s Answer to Siri Thinks Ahead”). It also has similarities to Microsoft’s recently unveiled mobile assistant, Cortana (see “Microsoft Wants You to Educate Its Virtual Assistant”).

The Google parallel isn’t incidental. Microsoft is struggling to compete not only with Google Search, Google Docs, Google Drive, and Android but with Google’s ability to leverage big data. With Oslo, the company is trying to take advantage of the information that its customers have poured into various products, in areas including search (Bing), e-mail (Outlook), social media (Yammer), document creation (Office), and content distribution (SharePoint). Between these products, Microsoft arguably has access to more proprietary information than any other service provider on Earth.

The Office Graph has a handle on internal documents that are invisible to Google, and it potentially knows where, when, how, and by whom they’re used. Oslo is an attempt to pull together these disparate threads into a feed of information that can help individual people get work done. Moreover, applying similar technology to Microsoft products aimed at, say, customer relationship management could give the company an advantage over competitors like Oracle, Salesforce, and SAP.

Oslo is a big test for how the company’s focus might change under its new CEO, Satya Nadella, who spent the last three years running Microsoft’s Cloud and Enterprise group. Where his predecessor Steve Ballmer clutched the fading Windows operating system like a frayed security blanket—the iOS version of Office appeared four years after the iPhone’s debut—Nadella has acknowledged the company’s need to move on, emphasizing a strategy he calls “mobile first, cloud first.” And although Oslo was in the works before he took the helm, the technology puts the mobile cloud front and center—the kind of thing Microsoft will need to do if it’s going to move back into the forefront of digital life.

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