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November 2, 2016updated 13 Jan 2017 11:47am

Microsoft takes a back seat to Philip Hammond and security

Chancellor of the Exchequer played up the importance of the UK's tech industry.

By James Nunns

Cloud is the engine and data is the fuel of digital transformation but in order to for the UK to take full advantage of the technologies the problem of security must be solved.

Those are the messages coming from Microsoft and the Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond at the Future Decoded conference in London.

While the topic of security was held back to prop up the keynotes on day one of the conference, with Microsoft opting to lead with customer stories and empowering messaging about the ability of technology to change the world, it would be the major take-away.

On the day that the government launched the UK’s first systematic National Cyber Security Programme, with £1.9bn in funding earmarked to help the country defend against breaches and cyber attacks, the keynotes would underpin its importance.

This in itself isn’t anything new, but Hammond had plenty of strong messages to send about the UKs aggressive approach to dealing with threats.

“Not only will we defend ourselves in cyberspace we will strike back when attacked,” said Hammond as he talked about the country’s approach to cyber threats.

Curiously there would be a different approach to cyber security messaging from the government and its recently created National Cyber Security Centre.

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Dr Ian Levy, technical director at NCSC, said that it was necessary to get underneath the hyperbole associated with cyber threats and to do it transparently.

Levy made the comparison between hackers and witchcraft in the way that the topic is treated, he said: “cyber security, the whole industry runs off fear, it makes users buy ‘magic amulets’.”

Levy wants the UK to change the fear approach and take a data driven one, and a number of other recommendations will be revealed in the National Security Strategy report released this afternoon.

Hammond meanwhile took time to focus on listing at length a wide range of cyber attacks, breaches, threats, and named without naming the threat posed by certain nation states that have been backing cyber attacks.

The conference had over 4,500 attendees.

The conference had over 4,500 attendees.

Clearly the messaging needs working on so that there is not the problem of one area of the government calling for an end of the fear campaign being followed by the government reeling off why everyone should be afraid.

In addition to Hammond calling for businesses and tech companies to take responsibility when it comes to being secure, saying: “tech companies must ensure that the best security designs are in their products,” he also significantly played up the importance of the tech sector in the UK.

Hammond said: “The technology industry is the future of the British economy,” before detailing how the UK has more tech unicorns than anywhere in Europe and stating that the country is well positioned to be a digital leader.

While this is great to hear it perhaps doesn’t carry that much weight. While the government has made promises and investments into expanding rural broad efforts there is often little said when it comes to Budget statements.

Aside from the political messaging, the conference took the now well-trodden path of talking about technology for good, Toni Townes-Whitley, corporate vice president of Worldwide Public Sector at Microsoft said the company has a new mission:”A new narrative about empowering 7.4bn people.”

While it may be aiming to empower as many people as possible, not only for the good of human kind but also to expand its business, the company did reveal an upcoming piece of artificial intelligence technology.

Microsoft Translator, which can currently translate conversations involve two people, will soon be able to support multiple speakers in nine languages.

The company demonstrated the technology during the keynotes with three people speaking in different languages, English, French and German.

The app was able to immediately translate the other person’s speech and display it in the app.

Olivier Fortana, director of product strategy for Microsoft Translator, said: “The idea is to say ‘Everybody has a smart device, a smartphone or a tablet’. What if we could harness the power of those smart devices to enable real-time multilingual conversation translation for an in-person situation.”

The company said that it plans to make the mobile app available before the end of the year.

Aside from highlighting the work it is doing with AI, its commitment to technologies such as cloud and enabling digital transformation, the company didn’t reveal a great deal. The more interesting pieces came from the guest speakers.

Putting the company in the back seat and not stealing the limelight may well be by design. Microsoft wants to enable customers to transform their companies but for the technology to be an integral part, not necessarily something that is always the main talking point.

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