Protocol | Enterprise

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.

Protocol | Fintech

How European fintech startup N26 is preparing for U.S. regulations

"There's a lot more scrutiny being placed on fintech. We are definitely mindful of it."

In an interview with Protocol, Stephanie Balint, N26's U.S. general manager, discussed the company's approach to regulations in the U.S.

Photo: N26

N26's monster $900 million funding round announced Monday underlined the German startup's momentum in the digital banking market.

Stephanie Balint, N26's U.S. general manager, said the funding will be used for expansion and also to improve "our core offering to make this the most reliable bank that our customers can trust," she told Protocol.

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Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Signal at (510)731-8429.

The way we work has fundamentally changed. COVID-19 upended business dealings and office work processes, putting into hyperdrive a move towards digital collaboration platforms that allow teams to streamline processes and communicate from anywhere. According to the International Data Corporation, the revenue for worldwide collaboration applications increased 32.9 percent from 2019 to 2020, reaching $22.6 billion; it's expected to become a $50.7 billion industry by 2025.

"While consumers and early adopter businesses had widely embraced collaborative applications prior to the pandemic, the market saw five years' worth of new users in the first six months of 2020," said Wayne Kurtzman, research director of social and collaboration at IDC. "This has cemented collaboration, at least to some extent, for every business, large and small."

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Kate Silver

Kate Silver is an award-winning reporter and editor with 15-plus years of journalism experience. Based in Chicago, she specializes in feature and business reporting. Kate's reporting has appeared in the Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Atlantic's CityLab, Atlas Obscura, The Telegraph and many other outlets.

Apple’s new MacBooks are the future — and the past

After years of reinventing the wheel, Apple's back to just building really good ones.

Apple brought back the ports.

Photo: Apple

The 2015 Pro was, by most accounts, one of the best laptops Apple ever made. It was fast and functional, and it had a great screen, a MagSafe charger, plenty of ports, a great keyboard and solid battery life. If you walked around practically any office in Silicon Valley, you'd see Pros everywhere.

Many of those users have been holding on to their increasingly old and dusty 2015 Pros, too, because right about when that computer came out was when Apple seemed to lose its way in the laptop market. It released the 12-inch MacBook, an incredibly thin and light computer that made a bunch of changes — a new keyboard and trackpad design chief among them — that eventually made their way around the rest of the MacBook lineup. Then came the Touch Bar, Apple's attempt to build an entirely new user interface into a laptop.

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David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editorial director. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

Image: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Imagine a company where there are no meetings — just time for deep, focused work punctuated by short conversations on Slack and project updates on Trello.

Now imagine a company where the no-meeting ethos is so ingrained that it's possible to work there for 10 years without ever speaking face-to-face with a single coworker, and for your boss to not even recognize the sound of your voice.

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Michelle Ma
Michelle Ma (@himichellema) is a reporter at Protocol, where she writes about management, leadership and workplace issues in tech. Previously, she was a news editor of live journalism and special coverage for The Wall Street Journal. Prior to that, she worked as a staff writer at Wirecutter. She can be reached at mma@protocol.com.
Protocol | Workplace

#AppleToo activist says Apple fired her for deleting apps from her devices

Janneke Parrish says she was dismissed after deleting Robinhood, Pokemon Go and Google Drive from her work devices during an investigation inside the company.

The Apple Too movement is trying to organize Apple workers into a collective movement.
Photo: Bloomberg via Getty

Unlike most other companies, Apple asks that its employees use their work phones like personal ones — and for five years, Apple program manager Janneke Parrish did as she was told. But last week, when Apple asked Parrish for her devices in an internal investigation, she was afraid Apple would see her personal and private information. She disobeyed orders and deleted apps like Robinhood, Pokemon Go and Google Drive. Then Apple fired her.

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Anna Kramer

Anna Kramer is a reporter at Protocol (Twitter: @ anna_c_kramer, email: akramer@protocol.com), where she writes about labor and workplace issues. Prior to joining the team, she covered tech and small business for the San Francisco Chronicle and privacy for Bloomberg Law. She is a recent graduate of Brown University, where she studied International Relations and Arabic and wrote her senior thesis about surveillance tools and technological development in the Middle East.

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