Future Decoded — my thoughts

Image by Microsoft

I spent Wednesday this week at ExCel London for the 2nd day of Microsoft’s Future Decoded event. It was a really good day — well organised and with some really interesting sessions. I didn’t make it to the 1st day on Tuesday but, with hindsight, I kinda wish I’d made more effort.

The opening keynotes were from Lorraine Bardeen, Mark Russinovich and Karin Strauss (all of Microsoft) covering, in order, HoloLens and mixed reality in the modern workplace, technology directions, and the somewhat futuristic possibility of using synthetic DNA as a high density storage mechanism.

I really enjoyed the ‘mixed reality in the modern workplace’ talk by Lorraine Bardeen. Mixed reality is the space where physical reality meets digital reality and, in the Microsoft ecosystem at least, is mainly visited using a HoloLens headset — you can’t get there by public transport yet! I’m not totally convinced that VR headsets in their current form will be widely adopted in most workplaces but the use-cases sounded pretty interesting and were actually surprisingly mundane — for example, providing the ability for a lift engineer to pull in remote tech support without needing to wait for someone to actually travel to them. The argument was that many ‘first-line’ workers do not have free hands to operate traditional digital devices (this includes anyone who works in a predominantly manual role). For me, Google Glass (or some variant thereof) feels like a more compelling solution in terms of ergonomics but the concept is really interesting. More on mixed reality later.

Mark Russinovich’s talk provided a high-level view of the technologies which Microsoft see as being significant in the near- to mid-term future — these being AI, IoT & Edge, Blockchain, and Serverless. This selection seems pretty reasonable to me, though I would still tend to put Blockchain firmly at the hype end of the spectrum. Mark talked about CoCo, which is Microsoft’s attempt to bring Blockchain to the enterprise, essentially by increasing trust and lowering latency. There’s a write-up of CoCo at InfoWorld if you are interested.

At one point in his talk, Mark described Serverless as “you provide the code, we do everything else”, which I quite liked.

The third of the keynote talks was from Karin Strauss. This was the most forward looking of the three, discussing the possibility — well, more than possibility because some proof of concept work has been done — to use synthetic DNA as a high-density storage mechanism. Karin showed a cube in the palm of her hand — about 2cm I guess — which she said could store 1 exabyte. During her talk she noted, “don’t worry, there is no life here” — to which my immediate react was, phew… imagine the possibilities. Honey, I just crossed the kids with the Internet Archive!

There were 3 breakout sessions. For the first, I sat in on the ‘Containers and end-to-end DevOps’ talk. This was really interesting but, for me, highlighted that the container space seems to have fragmented significantly (note: this could be down to my lack of understanding!). It feels to me like there are now a lot of options for deploying containers, even within the Microsoft ecosystem, and I don’t have a good handle on their relative pros and cons.

I then went to a talk entitled ‘Azure App Service Deep Dive’ which was, again, really interesting. It was pretty much all a live demo of how to do continuous deployments from GitHub to the App Service using Kudu. Very impressive. I quite like what Microsoft are doing in this space.

Finally I went to a talk entitled ‘Windows Mixed Reality Development in Unity’. This was a last minute decision — I was originally going to go to a talk on ‘Serverless IoT’ and I now wish I’d stuck to my first choice… I feel like I kinda got suckered into the whole virtual reality thing. There wasn’t a great deal wrong with the session other than that it focused on developing a mixed reality app that allowed you to deposit virtual animals in the ‘real’ world. Fun, I suppose, but a million miles from the kinds of mixed reality scenarios that had been talked about in the keynotes. I would have preferred to have seen something a little more business-focused. On reflection, the Serverless IoT talk would have been much more relevant to our likely interests at Eduserv — and would have been particularly interesting given that I spent a day at an AWS IoT workshop last week (about which, more anon).

Anyway, overall it was a really good day and I highly recommend it, assuming that they run the event again next year.