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Microsoft touts Edge’s new tab page connection to Office 365

Microsoft’s not-quite-ready-for-prime-time browser, the Edge built atop Google’s technologies, will feature an enterprise-centric new tab page, one that IT administrators can customize for employees.

The Redmond, Wash. developer outlined Edge’s new tab page capabilities for corporate customers a week after it announced the first release candidate” of the browser.

“When signed in with an Azure Active Directory (AAD) work account, opening a new tab in Microsoft Edge delivers a dynamic and personalized set of your most relevant Office documents, internal web sites, company resources, and other Microsoft 365 content,” Chad Rothschiller, senior program manager, and Matt Betz, product marketing manager, said in a Nov. 12 post to a company blog.

Absent IT intervention through the setting of group policies, Edge in an enterprise will look and work just as on a consumer’s PC, complete with a new tab page fleshed out from a feed of general news. But plug in GPOs (group policy objects) and the browser becomes a front end for Office 365, Microsoft’s productivity software and service subscription.

edge new tab page Microsoft

Office 365 users who log in to Edge through an Azure Active Directory account may see a new tab page integrated with the productivity suite and its services, from IT-mandated quick-click tiles to documents likely to need attention.

Each enterprise new tab page will boast eight thumbnails of selected sites, the first three of which can be set by IT (and set so that they cannot be changed by workers). Those sites might be important intranet pages or mission-critical web apps specific to the company at large, a department or team, or even the individual. The remaining five thumbnails – Edge allows only for one row of eight – will be based on frequently accessed sites or created by the device user, as is typical for other browsers’ new tab pages.

(More information about the NewTabPageManagedQuickLinks policy that sets the first three thumbnails is available here.)

Other areas of the new tab page perform Office 365 landing page duties, the most notable of which, dubbed “Recommended,” culls from recently-worked spreadsheets or collaborated-with-others Word docs or such like from signals derived from the user’s interactions with the productivity applications and others in her company or team. Documents surfaced to Recommended must be stored in OneDrive for Business or SharePoint sites, not surprising since those are the two cloud storage choices for virtually all Office 365 corporate customers.

Below that, other Office 365 content is listed and access to SharePoint’s intranet sites posted. Various views let users filter for pinned files or those, say, that have been received as email attachments.

The whole look and feel is very much akin to what an Office 365 user sees when steering to www.office.com in any browser, Edge included. The fact that Edge offers it on every new tab page makes for one less chore during a workday or, depending on how one sees the ever-present presence of Microsoft in the office, tiresome.

Microsoft, of course, views it as the former. “((The new tab page’s)) Recommended Documents feature is the ‘magic’ that surfaces what you need most,” contended Rothschiller and Betz. “It is the intelligence that monitors all file activity and uses machine learning to produce a short list of files, saving you time and allowing you to pick up right where you left off.”

Also integrated with Office 365 is the search field on the new tab page. When the user logs in to an AAD account, searches bring results of not only the web in general, but also organization-specific information, such as documents (again, those stored in OneDrive for Business or on a SharePoint site), personnel and intranet sites hosting line-of-business web apps.

Rothschiller and Betz called out manageability – no shock there, as that has historically been a strength of Microsoft-made browsers – but didn’t compare Edge with Chrome, the former’s foe as well as its forerunner. It might have been a missed opportunity, as Chrome is not equipped to sport an enterprise-specific new tab page (presumably one linked to its G Suite) nor able to somehow integrate with Office 365.

Edge’s first Stable build – production-ready, in other words – is set to launch Jan. 15. Until then, commercial users and IT administrators can kick the tires of the Beta, which can be downloaded from here for Windows and macOS.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.



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Microsoft promotes ‘full-Chromium’ Edge to Beta, touts enterprise skillset

Microsoft this week pushed the “full-Chromium” Edge one step closer to a production release with the launch Tuesday of a Beta build for macOS and all supported editions of Windows, including 7 and 10.

“Beta is the third and final preview channel which will come online before launch,” wrote Joe Belfiore, a top Windows executive, in an Aug. 20 post to a company blog. “Beta represents the most stable preview channel, as features are added to Beta only after they have cleared quality testing in first the Canary channel and then the Dev channel.”

Like Chrome, which is also built from the technologies created by the open-source Chromium project, Edge will eventually come in four flavors: Canary, Dev, Beta and Stable. Other than Canary, which is updated nightly, each build is more polished and more stable than its predecessor; each Dev and Beta build is maintained for about six weeks before its code is promoted to the next in line.

Chrome’s current Dev, for example, is version 78 while Beta is now at version 77. Stable is now at version 76. The code currently in Dev 78 will move from there to Beta early next month, then from Beta to Stable 78 around Oct. 22.

Although Edge’s new Beta is marked as version 77 – like Chrome’s – it’s unlikely that Microsoft will graduate the browser to Stable in October. Microsoft has not set a launch date for full-Chromium Edge, although in recent interviews, officials have said they hope to release the first Stable at the end of this year or early next.

At some point after that, Microsoft will swap in the Chromium Edge for the EdgeHTML Edge now in Windows 10.

Microsoft announced in December 2018 that it would kill off Edge’s home-grown rendering and JavaScript engines, and replace them with those produced by Chromium. Since then, the Redmond, Wash. company has issued Canary and Dev version for macOS and Windows 10, later expanding the latter support to Windows 7 and 8.1.

“The next version of Microsoft Edge is ready for everyday use,” Belfiore told users, referring to the new Beta.

To make his case, Belfiore trumpeted some of the build’s available features, including new tab page customization and tracking protection, although the latter has not been enabled.

(Microsoft followed rivals Apple and Mozilla in adding anti-tracking skills to full-Chromium Edge but even in the Beta, hides it behind an options screen. To switch it on, type edge://flags in the address bar, then locate the “Microsoft Edge tracking prevention” option and change it to “Enabled.” Relaunch the browser. Tracking Prevention can be found and managed under “Privacy and Services” in the Settings pane. By default, it will be set to the “Balanced” mode.)

Several enterprise-only features have been added to Edge’s latest preview.

Internet Explorer (IE) mode, which will replace the separate IE11 as the legacy arm of Microsoft’s browser strategy, was announced in May even as the company declined to go into detail, saying then that more would come “later this year.” Not until July and IE mode’s appearance in the Dev build of Edge – along with documentation on the mode – did Microsoft make good on its promise.

The mode lives in the more refined Beta now as well, backed by updated documentation._

Also new to full-Chromium Edge is Windows Defender Application Guard (WDAG), which like the same-named feature on the original EdgeHTML Edge, isolates IT-defined sites to protect workers from potential attack. Beta 77 is the first full-Chromium Edge to support WDAG. The defensive technology also requires Windows 10 Pro or Windows 10 Enterprise, although the former works only in what Microsoft calls “stand-alone” mode.

“If you are an enterprise customer, the next version of Microsoft Edge is ready to pilot with either Beta or Dev builds,” Belfiore concluded in his post.

The new Edge can be downloaded from the Edge Insider website.

edge beta 77 IDG/Gregg Keizer

Microsoft promoted Edge to Beta status but has yet to name a release date for the revamped browser built with Chromium.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.



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Slack touts ‘announcement channels’ for team update broadcasts

Slack admins can now designate any channel to be used for announcements only, a move aimed at minimizing distractions and ensuring that important information is communicated to workers.

While it’s already possible to limit posting in the default #general channel in Slack workspaces, the change unveiled today allows admins on Slack’s paid Plus and Enterprise Grid plans to restrict other channels as well. So, for instance, #it-announcements or #emea-announcements channels can be restricted to broadcasting information only.

The goal is to prevent employees from posting messages in channels intended for announcements (such as IT-related requests in an IT announcements channel), which can lead to other workers muting the channel and ignoring it completely. 

It will still be possible to respond to messages using threaded replies in announcement channels. 

“Announcement channels are a highly-requested feature from customers, particularly at the growing number of organizations where Slack is being adopted wall-to-wall,” said Ilan Frank, head of enterprise product at Slack. 

“We built the feature to help ensure communications are seen, create a reliable source of truth within organizations and allow users to share feedback on announcements immediately through emoji reactions or threads,” Frank said.

“Based on customer feedback, we think IT admins and corporate communications teams will be pleased.…” 

Larry Cannell, a research director at Gartner, said that, while it’s not a “killer feature,” the announcement channel move will be a welcome addition for admins taking care of busy workspaces. “If Slack is to replace email, then this type of capability is needed,” he said.

Slack will also introduce APIs to help automate some of the time-consuming and repetitive tasks admins are required to carry out when managing large-scale deployments. The APIs will, for example, let admins create workspaces and assign members, as well as invite thousands of guest accounts to specific channels at a time. These “events” can automatically be triggered by information collected via web forms, Slack said, such as a user submitting a request to create a new workspace.

It will soon be possible to automate app approvals and rejections across Enterprise Grid deployments. So an organization that relies on Box, for instance, as its primary document storage platform can whitelist the app eliminating the need for manually approvals each time a new workspace is created. It will also be possible to create rules to authorize certain apps, enabling workers to use apps that only post rather than read data, or banning all requests for certain types of apps. 

“Provisioning and management use cases are the most obvious scenarios to leverage these admin APIs,” said Cannell. “For example, a third-party tool could use the APIs to help manage a Slack installation alongside other IT infrastructure. Or, it could be as simple as a Slack admin creating a provisioning script to ease their own efforts. I expect we’ll also see admins publicly sharing these types of scripts.”

Enterprise Grid was launched in 2017 for Slack’s biggest customers, with additional features to support large-scale deployments. Among the 150 organizations now using Enterprise Grid are Capital One, IBM and Target.

The latest features build on new security capabilities for Enterprise Grid announced by Slack earlier this month to help manage Slack on mobile devices.

The announcement channels are available now for Plus and Enterprise Grid customers.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.



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Microsoft touts its first managed blockchain service: JPMorgan’s Quorum

Microsoft today announced its first Azure-based, managed blockchain platform using JPM’s Quorum enterprise-class distributed ledger technology.

Since 2015, Microsoft’s Azure cloud service has allowed users to install a number of blockchain platforms, including Enterprise Ethereum, Hyperledger Fabric, R3 Corda, and Quorum. That service only offered provisioning and setup. Now, however, Microsoft will handle not only the installation of the Quorum permissioned platform but software patches and updates, a full suite of application development tools as well as a template to govern the ledger, such as who can join a Quorum blockchain.

“None of that existed before. Customers had to figure all that out on their own,” said JT Rose, senior marketing manager for blockchain at Microsoft.

Microsoft unveiled its new Azure Blockchain Service ahead of its Build developer conference next week.

In November, Microsoft launched Azure Blockchain Workbench, a cloud-based development kit that enabled Azure services for encryption key management, off-chain identity and data management, and messaging APIs into a reference architecture that could be used to quickly build blockchain-based applications.

“What customers increasingly wanted was a managed infrastructure from us as well as a set of tools with Visual Studio Code and Logic Apps and Flow to write smart contracts to live on that network, manage the code of those smart contracts and interact with them – send data to and from smart contracts,” Rose said. “In our conversations with JMMorgan, they were seeing the same things.

“So, I think what we’ve evolved into is going from an infrastructure view of this in the early days…to a much more applications approach and set of offerings,” Rose added.

By making JPMorgan’s Quorum blockchain platform available as a managed service on its Azure cloud service, Microsoft said both its and the bank’s customers will be able to more easily build and scale blockchain networks in the cloud – without the need for capital expenditures on internal infrastructure.

Avivah Litan, a Gartner vice president of research, said that while there is movement into managed services in the blockchain market they’re not fully managed services –  as in an on-premesis model. And most of them are not interoperable with other clouds.

“So Azure blockchain is only talking to other Azure blockchain nodes. It can’t talk to AWS or Google,” Litan said. “Frankly, the only one that does interoperate to some extent, not on all levels, is IBM’s blockchain cloud. You can run a node on an IBM cloud, or AWS cloud or on-premise.”

The market’s still years away from true interoperability across clouds or for smart contracts to run everywhere, “which is really what you need for blockchain.

“That’s one of the pieces that still needs to be developed,” Litan added. “I think the big point here is companies do have trouble deploying blockchain, so cloud-based managed services certainly help them move faster.”

JPMorgan developed Quorum last year based on the Ethereum open-source, public  blockchain, which has smart contract functionality. JP Morgan’s version, however, is a permissioned or private blockchain, meaning a company using it can control who can join the ledger. Conversely, public blockchains, such as bitcoin, have no access restrictions.

“By utilizing Quorum, enterprise businesses across all industries will be able to shift their focus from infrastructure management to application development, ultimately driving transformative business value,” Microsoft said in a joint statement with JP Morgan. “Customers will benefit from rapid network growth, lower costs, simplified deployment and built-in governance enabled through Azure Blockchain Service.”

In addition to providing a platform for customers to build blockchain networks and applications, Quorum will continue to power JPMorgan and Microsoft blockchain programs and first-party apps, such as the Interbank Information Network, JPM Coin (a stablecoin or fiat-backed digital currency) and Microsoft’s Xbox royalty payment process.

JPMorgan likely chose Microsoft’s Azure platform out of necessity, Litan said, as it is the only managed cloud service already covering Ethereum, on which Quorum is based. Whlle it has announced its intent to support Ethereum, AWS currently only supports Hyperledger, as does IBM in terms of its managed service.

Google does not have a managed blockchain service.

“There really wasn’t anyone left other than Microsoft,” Litan said.

JPMorgan in February announced JPM Coin, making it the first major bank to offer a cryptocurrency backed by fiat money; the coin could be used on its Quorum blockchain platform for cross-border transactions. One JPM Coin has the same value as one U.S. dollar. Trials for the new cryptocoin are expected to begin in the next few months.

“When one client sends money to another over the blockchain, JPM Coins are transferred and instantaneously redeemed for the equivalent amount of U.S. dollars, reducing the typical settlement time,” JPMorgan said in an online FAQ. The technology also reduces fees by cutting out a central bank middleman typically responsible for clearance and settlement.

Microsoft and JPMorgan are among a growing community of Blockchain-as-a-Service  providers that includes Amazon, Google, IBM, and Oracle.

Blockchain continues to grow and evolve and is expected to generate upwards of $160 billion by 2023.



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