Microsoft can't tell it like it is

We need to talk about the reality distortion field of Redmond product marketing

Do you know what Microsoft Dataverse is? Most of the subscribers of this “Perspectives on Power Platform” newsletter are probably nodding in agreement. That's because the origins of Dataverse go back some ~20 years by now. Everyone who's ever developed or customized something for a Microsoft based CRM system has worked with Dataverse, even if it's current name is only X years old (R.I.P. “Dataflex Pro”).

Most of the technology professionals working with other mainstream MS technologies won't know the answer, though. When they encounter the name “Dataverse”, they have to look it up. Here's where things get messy because the answer provided by MS product marketing is something that absolutely no one outside that marketing team would give:

Wow. If this was used in a quiz aimed at MS certified professionals working with Power Platform / Dynamics 365 technologies on a daily basis, everyone out there would have failed to select the right choice. And yet when you go to the primary website of Microsoft Power Platform product family and choose to learn more about the platform elements, this is the first text that MS shows you today:

Add grounded enterprise data and make your copilots actionable with Microsoft Dataverse, the enterprise data platform for Copilot.

Cheers to former BizApps MVP Marius Agur Hagelund Lind for pointing this latest MS product marketing stunt out to me! If you ever come across similar things, I definitely do appreciate if you reach out to me and let me know about them.

The reason why I’m so interested in the marketing communication coming from Microsoft is that I believe words are the source code of our human society. They are used to program the way we hope other people to respond and act. Being originally a marketing guy who just happened to dive deeper into technology used for it, I’m endlessly fascinated by how the words used to describe software products and features impact the way it gets adopted and applied into business processes.

I also like to ask the question “why?” a bit more often than the average business dude or tech geek. I frequently try to decrypt the original chain of actions and underlying drivers that have lead to corporations acting in a specific way.

So, why the **** would MS suddenly want to define Dataverse as being an enterprise data platform for Copilot when in reality that covers a maximum 0.01% of its current use cases for customers out there? Because that’s what they always do. Changing the names and meaning of things to be something that’s not true today but what they hope for it to be in the future is surely a key goal of Microsoft marketing communication (like in other corporations). Let’s look at some other MS related examples for perspective.

One brand to obfuscate all the products

When MS started bringing their CRM and ERP technologies into the mainstream in 2016, Microsoft invented the new brand of “Dynamics 365”. It was meant to cover both sides of enterprise software, thus convincing the customers that it is one unified platform. From a technology perspective, nothing new was introduced at that time to make this branding stunt meet the reality. Sure, there have been plenty of efforts since then to harmonize the tech stack and share more components across CRM and ERP. It’s becoming more & more real, yet for many years it’s mainly been an aspirational goal rather than customer reality. The real use case (like CRM) was wiped away from all marketing materials and documentation - even if that’s what people would have been looking for.

More recently, MS has declared itself to be “The Copilot Company”. As a result, every one of their products and key features needs to have a Copilot feature built in, or otherwise it may as well be declared dead. The engineering organization of course has to follow the direction set by senior leadership team, meaning the Copilot brand is today found in more places than anyone can keep track of. It’s absolutely not a single Copilot technology that powers them all today, rather they are silos of narrowly scoped LLM based features that do very different things, depending on from which app you happen to click on the Copilot icon.

A few days ago I was invited into a session to talk about the licensing of Copilot. Upon starting my research on this topic, I wasn’t surprised at all that finding any simple answer to it based on MS provided materials alone was impossible. In an effort to at least remember what’s the difference between product/feature names starting with “Copilot for” vs. “Copilot in”, I had to come up with my own rule of thumb for Copilot branding:

It’s clear we now live in the era where Copilot is the center of Microsoft’s universe. Having Microsoft Dataverse described primarily as “the technology that powers Copilots” is a perfectly logical move if you are the person that needs to ensure the visibility of this product/capability in the mainstream marketing messaging.

After all, you’re not technically lying when saying that. You’re just applying the reality distortion field surrounding Redmond by selecting a fringe use case to be the hero motion of your product pitch. Because it aligns with what KPIs have been given set to measure your performance at work.

Do what the KPI demands, not what the CEO says

Those who follow Microsoft news in tech media might have noticed the security crisis in which the company has found itself in, resulting from the aftermath of a major cyberattack in Summer 2023. You can read a great analysis of this from Kevin Beaumont’s blog post “Breaking down Microsoft’s pivot to placing cybersecurity as a top priority”.

The leadership team at Microsoft has indeed admitted that there is a change of direction needed in how the company approaches security. As one evidence of this, Satya sent a message internally to all MS employees, which was also shared in the official corporate blog:

If you’re faced with the tradeoff between security and another priority, your answer is clear: Do security. In some cases, this will mean prioritizing security above other things we do, such as releasing new features or providing ongoing support for legacy systems.

Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, May 2024

Well done!👏 Transparently communicating about the direction that every team in the organization must follow is an excellent way to handle such serious and important issues. This is how you build trust.

Almost simultaneously, elsewhere in the MS mothership, the Copilot+ PC announcements are eroding this very trust in a big way. The flagship feature of these new Windows PCs is Recall:

With Recall, you have an explorable timeline of your PC’s past. Just describe how you remember it and Recall will retrieve the moment you saw it. Any photo, link, or message can be a fresh point to continue from. As you use your PC, Recall takes snapshots of your screen. Snapshots are taken every five seconds while content on the screen is different from the previous snapshot. Your snapshots are then locally stored and locally analyzed on your PC. Recall’s analysis allows you to search for content, including both images and text, using natural language.

Microsoft support: Retrace your steps with Recall

In short, the new Windows PC will monitor everything you do on it, store screenshots and automatically OCR them, then make the contents searchable via Copilot style natural language UI. There’s gonna be loads of data locally on your PC, for the “AI” to chew on. And this is where it all potentially goes up in flames of a security dumpster fire.

Yes, the data from Recall is not sent to MS cloud. But that doesn’t mean it’s secure enough - because many ordinary Windows PC’s aren’t secure enough. Common malware with local access to resources on your hard drive will now be able to read any passwords, private messages, nude pics and other sensitive material collected by the Recall feature into a neatly indexed SQLite database:

To put in a provocative way, “stealing everything you’ve ever typed or viewed on your own Windows PC is now possible with two lines of code”. There’s already a demonstration of such an app, called TotalRecall, built by a security researcher. Almost everyone in the tech media, and in the security space in particular, are saying that Recall should be recalled.

This whole episode is the polar opposite of what the CEO email instructed about prioritizing security over everything else. But the problem of course is that Recall and the Copilot+ PC hardware were already in the pipeline by the time Satya’s email went out. They’ve been in making during the time when all the KPIs inside MS have been encouraging employees to “do data capture first” and to follow the prime directive of “Copilot or GTFO”.

Today, many of the professionals who are most vocal about the risks in Recall are not doing it because they hate Windows. I believe they instead hate this direction where the ordinary folks like senior citizens with limited capacity for keeping up with modern technology are being pushed into using risky new solutions, enabled by default. Thus giving even more chances for the malicious actors to prey on their data and gain an edge in this endless battle for security and privacy in a world gone digital.

We're in this together

I want Microsoft to succeed. More specifically, I want to see customers, the people inside organizations, succeed through using Microsoft technology to solve real problems. This is one key driver behind everything I do in my professional life. I want to remove obstacles that stand between the individuals who want to improve the working day of others and the technical capabilities that exist inside the vast MS ecosystem. I applaud and support Microsoft’s mission to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.

Marketing misinformation, the smoke & mirrors created as a result of the incentives that certain parts of the huge MSFT corporation have in place, is sometimes a very real obstacle for those who strive towards this mission. Many of use who work as either partners or customers for these cloud services surely identify the issues. But what should we do about it?

If you are responsible for selling the software licenses and projects for getting that software into use, it’s a tough spot to be in. Pointing things out through polite “well, it’s not exactly how this marketing slide presents it, but anyway…” excuses is one strategy for survival in the hectic and sometimes crazy world of IT consulting. Once the deals are signed and delivery work starts, hopefully sufficient mutual trust will gradually emerge during projects that allows the professionals on both sides of the table to be more open about the mismatch between marketing pitches and the reality.

The big tech vendor employees can rarely tell it like it is. I can imagine there must be great pressure on them to paint the compelling picture of what their company is aiming to achieve in the long term. Which often isn’t quite true today. Nor exactly what the future turns out to be in the end. As of right now, it’s hardly a question of whether we are in an AI bubble, but rather when is it going to burst. Up until that point, we’ll just get more and more AI thrown on top of everything that exists.

It can be frustrating when the only thing you’re allowed to sell is the future. Even when there would be awesome capabilities already in place today that are technically mature enough to tackle common business problems in the real world. To balance things out, I think the solution to this dilemma needs to come from the community’s side. The more the big tech vendors are hyping things that would solve their problems (meaning: create new things to sell), the more us community members need to speak up about what problems we feel the technology around us should address.

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