Dreamforce 2015: Analytics, IoT, Microsoft Mishaps and Uber's Future

At this year's Dreamforce conference, held in San Francisco, tech discussions reigned supreme.

by / September 17, 2015
Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff struts toward the audience on Sept. 16 at Dreamforce after an opening performance by musical guest Stevie Wonder. Jason Shueh

SAN FRANCISCO — Dreamforce was back this year, and with it came all the flamboyance and pageantry for which the San Francisco festival is known.

As in previous years, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff spared no expense for the conference, spread throughout the city from Sept. 15-18. A Celebrity Cruises ship, dubbed the “Dreamboat,” was docked on a city pier to house some of 170,000 attendees. Musical guests like the Foo Fighters, the Killers and legend Stevie Wonder performed. Then there was the typical infusion of Silicon Valley thought leaders. Three of these were Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins.

But against the fanfare and marketing hype, a few major announcements were made.

After a year’s wait, Salesforce officially added Wave, its user-friendly analytics program, to its government cloud. A new Internet of Things Cloud promises to revolutionize how companies respond to data from any device. And there was an update on Microsoft’s holographic headset, HoloLens, which visualizes 3-D images and video.

Here is a brief sampling of events and highlights.

Government Rides the Wave

Salesforce Wave analytics is now available on the company’s Government Cloud. What this means beyond the jargon is that officials at all levels of government can now subscribe to the service to analyze their government data.

Vivek Kundra, Salesforce's executive VP of Public Sector, unveiled the update in a government session on Sept. 15, and noted that he envisions that Wave will be a sizable influencer of government operations. In 2014, when Wave was first released, Kundra hypothesized that the service would enable insights across government, with target sectors being education, health care and transit. A year later, the prediction could still hold true if CIOs can persuade leadership that Wave will pay for itself through cost efficiencies, improved policies and new services — definitely possible, but a tough sell for jurisdictions with tight budgets.

To offer an overview, Cloud Sherpas' John Cosgrove, a lead architect behind Wave, spoke Sept. 15 to answer questions and conduct demos. Cosgrove said Wave has successfully launched in South Wales, enabling leaders to look at big picture results or drill down into the minutia. He said what makes Wave especially competitive may be its ability to create a user-friendly experience. Many analytics companies claim easy use, but few deliver on this promise. In a first look, it appears to offer an intuitive tap, click and swipe interface. There are plenty of popups to guide newcomers, and the takeaway is an interactive experience more akin to Google than a business intelligence app.

For security measures, the app carries federal certification through the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program, (FedRAMP). Those who are curious can test out Wave on desktop machines or through its mobile app — that also supports the Apple Watch.

IoT Cloud

Breaking into the smart city sector, Salesforce touted its new Internet of Things Cloud as a next-gen system that processes big data from sensors, websites, smartphones and social media feeds. As previously reported, Salesforce Internet of Things Cloud CIO Adam Bosworth described the platform as a cloud capable enough to detect small trends in data and trigger immediate responses — such as notification or device adjustments — back to consumers.

In a followup keynote Wednesday, Sept. 16, Benioff promoted the IoT cloud as a tool that will let companies proactively respond in real time to big data, reiterating Bosworth's example of Amazon automatically tracking individual packages and simultaneously notifying customers of delivery status and issues.

In this IoT endeavor, the company is partnering with two of the biggest vendors in the smart city market: Microsoft, which provides its Azure Cloud to receive incoming device data; and Cisco, which will distribute the service within its own “Internet of Everything” enterprise solutions. Despite mutual benefits, the partnership duly speaks of Salesforce’s growing prominence. Benioff said the company is on track to be the fourth largest tech company in world by 2016, and the fact that Microsoft or Cisco weren’t able to launch a competitive IoT Cloud offering independently is noticeable. Still in pilot mode at the moment, the IoT cloud will be released in the second half of 2015.

Microsoft Mishaps, Increased Security

During Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella's interview on Wednesday, he answered questions on everything from workforce diversity, to products, to whether or not Microsoft had its own soul.

He was vague when it came to workforce diversity, speaking only abstractly about how Microsoft seeks to embed diversity within itself; however, no policy initiatives — such as in hiring or salary — were mentioned, nor were employment metrics for women or minorities.

Of particular note were two major technical gaffes as Nadella tried to check emails in a demo of the new Microsoft Office 2016, and during his use of Microsoft Power BI, the Seattle company’s analytics platform.

When talking to Window's voice recognition and search feature called Cortana, it failed numerous times to understand his voice and deliver results in Power BI. His request, “Show me my most at-risk [sales] opportunities” translated into “Show me to buy milk at this opportunity.” Asked again, and Cortana tried to set a reminder. Asked again, and it thought he wanted to see his notes. “No, no this is not going to work, sorry about that,” Nadella said, with a laugh.

Minor shortcomings aside, the CEO garnered cheers from the crowd when he showcased Windows Hello, the new Windows 10 password system that uses facial recognition, fingerprints and retinal scans to unlock devices. 

As for HoloLens, Nadella estimated that developer kits are coming soon and a consumer version is about five years out. Speaking on the corporate mission — what he called the “soul” of Microsoft — Nadella said the company is now less device-centric and more experience-focused. Whether users grab an iPhone or another type of device, Nadella said Microsoft wants to ensure their apps and data translate ubiquitously across all platforms.

“Computing is going to be everywhere," he said, "and so the question is, 'Are your experiences going to move around as you move around?' "

The Future of Uber

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick opened day two of the conference with his thoughts about what’s next for the international ride-hailing service. Interviewed by Benioff, Kalanick said reliability and market penetration were top priorities.

“Always a reliable ride is No. 1 at Uber," Kalanick said, "so we will do whatever we have to do on the technology side … to make sure customers have a safe pickup."

What this top priority requires, he added, is more drivers in more cities and a technical infrastructure to accommodate demand. Citing Uber facts and figures, he said the company is 40 percent cheaper than taxis in San Francisco, is providing 1,000 trips per minute worldwide, and adds additional income to the 50 percent of Uber drivers transporting passengers less than 10 hours a week.

“For drivers, this is an income opportunity,” Kalanick said.

The CEO did not go into any of Uber’s current political or legal battles, issues that include classifying their drivers as employees or a spate of international legislation opposing the service. However, he did speak about where he believes the company is going. Short-term, Uber may expand into the city delivery market. It has already launched UberEATS for food delivery and could add other delivery services to the mix through its drivers. Anything that is transported within a city is fair game, Kalanick said, but city-to-city deliveries he’d leave to traditional shipping.

“Once you can deliver cars in five minutes, there’s a lot of things you can deliver in five minutes,” he said.

Talking about self-driving vehicles, he said the company would unquestionably move to an automated type of transportation service in the coming decades. However, he also said ride-hailing drivers shouldn’t have any immediate worries as the cars are still in their early stages, and the infrastructure and regulatory frameworks would require great efforts.

“This is not going to happen all at once,” Kalanick said. “And at scale, it’s not going to happen anytime soon.”

Jason Shueh former staff writer

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.