Israel a big player in Microsoft’s big data future

From smart faucets to fitness apps, latest technologies on display at Microsoft’s R&D center’s annual ThinkNext event

Yoram Yaakovi, CEO of Microsoft Israel’s R&D Center (Photo credit: Microsoft)
Yoram Yaakovi, CEO of Microsoft Israel’s R&D Center (Photo credit: Microsoft)

The future of Microsoft is big data analytics – squeezing meaning out of the trillions of bytes of data that will soon be in “the cloud,” that amorphous repository of the bits and bytes where nearly everything we do online is stored.

It’s not just online. In an Internet of Things future, said Yoram Yaakovi, CEO of Microsoft Israel’s R&D Center, data will be collected from a wide variety of devices and appliances, from refrigerators to washing machines, uploaded to the cloud for analysis.

And Israeli technology, he said, will be at the forefront of figuring out how to use this data for the benefit of users. Israel, Yaakovi added, has the start-ups, engineers, ideas and experience to leverage technology and “provide real insight into data so we can use it for our benefit.”

If the relationship you have with Microsoft is limited to Windows and Word, MS Israel wants you to know that you are way behind the times. In many ways, the company has broken free of the “old model” business chains that encumbered it. For example, start-ups in the Microsoft Ventures Accelerator, said Zack Weisfeld, director of the international program, don’t have to use Microsoft products or even Windows in order to build their products. It’s about as open source as you can get for a company that was once known for its “orthodox” — as in, our way or no way — approach to computing.

Today’s Microsoft sees itself more as a start-up – albeit a really big one – than a staid, stodgy corporation, according to Yaakovi. That attitude is one reason the annual major event for the company in Israel is called ThinkNext.

“It’s a celebration of innovation, shared by major global companies, start-ups and academia,” said Yaakovi. “At the heart of this innovation is the revolution of big data, allowing us to analyze in real time growing amounts of data in the cloud and extract valuable business and personal insights. And Microsoft Israel, said Yaakovi, is key to the company’s big data insight extraction technologies.

Thirty-five of what Microsoft considers the best and most innovative of those technologies were on display at ThinkNext 2015 Tuesday night in Tel Aviv. The event is important enough for Microsoft to have flown in two top executives from the US, including Scott Guthrie, executive vice president for Microsoft Cloud and Jean-Philippe Courtois, president of Microsoft International. Other speakers included Bonnie Ross, corporate vice president of 343 Industries, in charge of Halo, the world’s best-selling game; GM executive Michael J. Arena; and Timotheus Höttges, CEO of Deutsche Telekom.

Among the technologies on display included a system that records talk radio and provides a Youtube-style search engine for snippets of chat; a smart faucet that detects how much water is being used and allows users to regulate the flow of water to each faucet; an augmented-reality set of googles for skiers that lets users see maps of ski trails and provides turn-by-turn directions to help skiers stay on the trial and avoid hazards (like trees); and an on-the-fly translator for Skype, where an English speaker can hear a Spanish speaker in his own language, and vice-versa.

All these services and products use technology on the Microsoft Azure cloud, uploading data and getting back useful results.

Microsoft’s big industry play today is in data analytics, making sense of the huge reams of data constantly and endlessly being uploaded to the Internet. A good example – and a star at ThinkNext — is the company’s just-introduced fitness device, said Adir Ron, strategic innovation lead of Microsoft Israel’s Enterprise & Partners Group.

“The band includes a pre-built data model that uses its sensors to provide information to the wearer, not only providing accurate information about heartbeat, physical activity, calorie burn and sleep quality, but also analyzing the data to provide insights about how to improve health, lose weight or whatever the goal would be,” Ron said.

The crowd at ThinkNext (Photo credit: Microsoft)
The crowd at ThinkNext (Photo credit: Microsoft)

One example of how that works is a technology Microsoft representatives called “People Like You,” a next-level band technology that connects users with others who have the same physical fitness interests, or who have other traits in common.

For example, the system will check out a runner’s speed, capacity, energy level, etc. and recommend others who they might want to connect with, in order to form a relationship that will inspire each to do better. Other insights could include advice on how to improve performance, based on the experiences of others in the same physical shape, or who are the same age.

“It’s much more advanced than fitness apps that recommend running or walking with others,” a Microsoft spokesperson said at the event. “People Like You can find patterns in your behavior or performance that you wouldn’t think of, but that could be important,” such as possible health issues based on gait, heart rate and breathing.

Sports, indeed, is much on the mind of Microsoft these days. This week, the company announced a partnership with popular Spanish soccer club Real Madrid, which will use big data to enhance player performance, and offering fans exclusive, personalized and customized content and digital services.

But it’s not all fun and games at Microsoft, said Yaakovi. “Big data analytics are the only thing that is going to save computing from being decimated by hackers. There are hundreds of thousands of attacks each day on Windows computers, and that doesn’t include servers or web sites. The only way we will be able to battle these attacks is with big data and business intelligence, another important area of insight for Microsoft.”

The purloining of data by Edward Snowden from the NSA, said Yaakovi, could have been averted if the government had implemented systems to provide that insight.

“There were a lot of anomalies in the Snowden case – he stole the credentials of fellow employees and logged onto machines they usually didn’t use, at times of the day they weren’t usually in the system, and accessed files they usually didn’t work with,” Yaakovi said.

“The technology of Aorato, an Israeli cybersecurity firm we bought recently, could have detected that. Of course we can’t know what really would have happened, but I believe that if they had been using Aorato, Snowden could have been caught, or at least stopped.”

Aorato is just one example of a top Israeli technology. While Microsoft technologies are developed by worldwide teams, Israel, without question, plays a very important role in Microsoft’s take on big data, Yaakovi boasts.

“We have the people and the experience here. Israel just makes sense for Microsoft.”

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