Microsoft Teams' new features to use AI and its smart assistant in video conferencing show it's no longer just playing catch up with Zoom


Microsoft announced a handful of new features for its chat and collaboration app Teams on Wednesday that aim to make remote work less cumbersome and which show that it's finally pushing the video conferencing market forward, according to an analyst, instead of just playing catch-up to competitor Zoom. 

The launch includes a new feature called "together mode," which uses artificial intelligence technology segment people's head and shoulders and place them in the same shared background on a video call, and the integration of Microsoft's voice assistant Cortana.

Microsoft Teams has seen its usage grow tremendously during the pandemic as offices had to quickly shift to remote work, reporting 75 million daily active users at the end of April. For many companies, Teams was the most convenient collaboration platform to turn to, but it has still spent the last few months playing catch-up to Zoom by adding features that its competitor already had, like tiled view and background noise suppression.

Microsoft executive Jared Spataro, who runs the Microsoft 365 suite of tools, said he views competition as a way to understand what customers need. His team has been focused on listening to what people want from a video conferencing tools and making sure to close the gaps between Teams and other products. But it also realized that it could do more to push the market forward.

"Competitors are useful as essentially a signal of what customers really want," Spataro told Business Insider. "So we watched them to get those signals, but the things that you see from us this week are based not on competitive signals, but instead on customer signals. We've really been able to roll up our sleeves and ask customers, 'Hey, what would help you deal with the current situation?'" 

The most glaring conclusion from talking to people using Microsoft tools to work remotely: After four months of remote work many workers are feeling video meeting fatigue and less connected to their colleagues, too. 

Video calls don't work as well for an all-hands or big team meeting, which are meant to foster a sense of community. That's where together mode comes in: It attempts to create a more natural setting so people feel less overwhelmed during team meetings, Spataro said. Meanwhile, it's "dynamic views" mode allows users to customize the layout of the video call, so they can easily decide whose screens are emphasized. 

"We started to realize that this idea of having the boxes on the screen was actually pretty mentally taxing," Spataro said. "You're kind of moving from one person to another and having a part of that background and a person. And we realized that that's very different from what people do generally." 

Dynamic view in Teams
Dynamic view in Microsoft Teams
Microsoft

With these new tools Microsoft is finally taking a 'leadership position'

Wednesday's announcement marks Microsoft as finally doing something in the video collaboration market that isn't just playing catch up, Angela Ashenden, an analyst at CCS Insight, told Business Insider. 

"I think it is a really important feature for them, not least because it really highlights Microsoft taking a leadership position in this market in a way that we haven't really seen," Ashenden said. "A lot of the capabilities that it's announced in the last few weeks have been making sure that it's on a par with Zoom." 

Microsoft is taking advantage of the other parts of its business, like artificial intelligence, to inform how it continues to improve and develop Microsoft Teams and rethink video communication in this new remote work environment. The new integration with Cortana will allow people to do things like reply to chats and join and leave meetings with their voice, and will be available on mobile and conference room hardware, though not desktop. As Microsoft continues to evolve Teams, Ashenden said she thinks it will put more focus into adding new features for the chat and collaboration parts of the app, as opposed to just video. 

Microsoft itself thinks that companies will be in a sort of hybrid state of working for the foreseeable future, with some offices reopening for a small number of employees when it's safe to do so and some people continuing to work from home, Spataro said. Microsoft wants Teams to be the digital platform that companies can use for this new style of working, and it goes beyond video meetings. 

"The big opportunity for them going forward is to kind of how they fit that leadership that they're really bringing forth around the video to do the same thing on the chat-based conversational side of house as well," Ashenden said.

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