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Can we talk? Microsoft unveils voice and text-chat service for developers.

Web and mobile developers will be able to use Azure Communication Services to let customers chat with service reps directly from their apps or web sites.

A Microsoft data center.

Microsoft is adding more communication services to Azure.

Photo: Microsoft

One year after the pandemic forced businesses to adapt in countless ways, the race to overhaul how they interact with their customers is starting to heat up.

Microsoft said Tuesday it would release Azure Communication Services into the wild this week, kicking off the first day of its Ignite virtual conference. The service, first introduced at the autumn version of Ignite last September, allows developers to embed voice, text chat, SMS or video capabilities into their applications.

It's based on the same technology that runs the communications features in Microsoft Teams, and the company is also planning to preview a service this week that lets Azure customers use Teams to manage the back end of interactions with their own customers through their respective apps.

Microsoft started working on this service prior to the widespread shutdown orders imposed one year ago in hopes of containing COVID-19 in the U.S., but that experience "really accelerated our thinking," said Scott Van Vliet, corporate vice president for intelligent communications at Microsoft.

The experience of the past year has sped up many businesses' plans to overhaul customer communications. Microsoft's new service targets a customer who has no shortage of options after deciding to ditch traditional call centers with rows of operators on landlines, a trend that was well underway before the pandemic.

Twilio became a $63 billion company on the back of its developer-friendly communications APIs, and enterprise software players like RingCentral also offer customers communications tools for their apps. AWS updated Amazon Connect last December at re:Invent 2020 with new machine-learning capabilities, and Zoom is reportedly thinking about using its pandemic dividend to go after this market.

"We've been building this rich, real-time communications infrastructure for products at Microsoft over the last couple of decades," Van Vliet said, citing products such as Microsoft Live Meeting and Skype as a proving ground for Azure Communications Services. "We realized that we really had something special in terms of the scale that we were able to achieve in building this platform with something that third party developers may also get the benefit from."

While Microsoft wants to encourage its own customers to use Microsoft Teams to manage those communications, those companies do not want to force their customers to download yet another communications app in order to talk to a doctor or resolve a customer service issue.

The idea is "really to give developers … the choice to take the core communication services that we offer and integrate them into the products and workflows they may already have," Van Vliet said.

Still, in keeping with its efforts to make Microsoft Teams as one of its most visible products, Microsoft would really like Azure customers to use Teams as well. For now, the link between Teams and Azure Communications Service is available as a preview, but it's clear that Microsoft has organized much of its product-development strategy around Teams as a central hub for business customers.

"If [a Microsoft] customer was already using Teams, they could add ACS to their own mobile application, or even to their own website using WebRTC, and allow customers to join a call, that on one end, they're using their mobile device or their desktop and on the company side, they're actually using Microsoft Teams and the same familiar interface and workflows that they already have to connect those experiences," Van Vliet said.

That's one reason why Microsoft has an advantage over the other cloud companies jockeying for a piece of this market. Thanks to the ubiquity of Microsoft Office, the company already has a business relationship with countless enterprise software buyers, making it easier to entice those customers to use other parts of the Microsoft portfolio in their own applications.

Still, many companies that were forced to reinvent their customer-service and purchasing workflows last year as in-person business activity ground to a halt went with other vendors. Yet as with other categories of cloud services, which a surprising number of companies have yet to adopt in any fashion, Microsoft believes there's still plenty of growth left in this slice of the market.

"What we see happening in the future is really this concept of a hybrid work model, where a lot of the things that were requirements, or things you just had to do during the pandemic, will be things that will be pretty sticky," Van Vliet said.

Microsoft Ignite kicks off later Tuesday with a keynote from CEO Satya Nadella and runs through Thursday.

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