Throughout its 90-minute opening keynote at Build 2019, Microsoft announced dozens of new products and features and offered demos of many of them, including real-time demos of the new Fluid Framework.

It was not especially interesting to watch two people co-author a document in real time — that’s not a new capability for end users. What was interesting was seeing someone grab a table from a Word document and drag it to a chat window, and then watching two people edit that table in real time from within those two different applications. It was also interesting to see someone type in one language while the text was translated into not just one, but eight different languages in real time.

What it is

So what is Fluid Framework? Rob Howard, senior director of Microsoft 365 apps marketing, explained in an interview at Microsoft Build 2019.

“When you think about it for developers, it is a framework for building what we call distributed web applications,” said Howard. If you’re creating a website or web-based application that numerous people will be interacting with, for example, Fluid Framework “will make those experiences faster, more scalable, [and] you can kind of create those applications more easily in a more accessible way,” he added.

Developers will be able to access Fluid Framework by the end of the year via an SDK.

For end users, it’s about enhancing the ways they can work. “There’s actually a point at which we see the behavior of these people in these collaborative tools change,” said Howard. Reductions in friction for users come partly from speed improvements, and Howard pointed to the extremely low latency between the actions of a local user and those of a remote user in the onstage Fluid Framework demos. (Watching in person, it was indeed difficult to tell which was which.)

Microsoft Fluid Framework teams

There has also always been friction between applications — barriers so deeply ingrained in many of us that we take them for granted. Going back to the earlier example, if you have a table in a Word or Excel document that you want to share, you currently have to perform several operations, like taking a screenshot and dropping the photo into an email or chat application or sharing the entire document by attaching it to an email or uploading it to shared cloud storage. If the document was created locally and converted to a shared cloud document, you also run into the problem of co-authorship.

With Fluid Framework, you simply grab the table and drop it into the team chat application. With low latency, that all happens fast enough that users don’t even mentally clock the delay.

Web technology

Fluid Framework may sound like some kind of AI, like many of the other features Microsoft announced at Build 2019, but it’s not. It is, as the name implies, a framework that enables AI to happen. And it doesn’t sound all that complicated — it’s more or less a novel approach to using existing technology.

“It’s a JavaScript library, and then a set of services that that library interacts with in order to synchronize objects,” Howard explained. In a web application, that table in a document would be represented as a JavaScript object. The web application calls a service to synchronize status changes, and that flows — like a fluid, perhaps — to all the other participants.

Think of Fluid Framework as a vessel, a delivery system for other things — mainly, intelligent agents.

Intelligent agents reporting for duty

The multi-language real-time translation demo we saw was not, Howard said, specific to Fluid Framework. It was just Azure Cognitive Services translation at work. But Fluid Framework made it possible, and sensible, in an actual context.

Microsoft Fluid Framework translation

Above: Microsoft’s Fluid Framework.

Image Credit: Microsoft

In VentureBeat’s conversations throughout Build, Microsoft representatives were careful not to define too closely what an “intelligent agent” actually is. That’s because these agents aren’t so much things as they are a typology. Microsoft has a great deal of AI expertise, with numerous products and services flowing from that, and intelligent agents augment many of these — in ways great and small. You may not even notice they’re present at first, but the task you’re trying to perform may become faster or a little easier, Howard noted.

Fluid Framework and intelligent agents are coming natively to Microsoft 365 experiences, but other companies can take advantage via a software SDK. There’s still work to be done on that SDK, Howard said, but Microsoft is working with its partners to better understand what they want to do with these capabilities and how it can meet their needs.

Microsoft has some work to do yet on its own services, too. “It’s not like we flip on a switch and — Oh, wow, there’s magic that happens,” said Howard. “We’ll have to do some work to integrate it into Word and Teams and Outlook.”

None of this work will be visible to end users, of course. We’ll just begin to experience the benefits as it enhances what we can do while we use Microsoft products. “We really are sort of shifting from being so focused on our apps and our devices and our offerings and are much more focused on meeting people where they are,” said Howard. “Nowhere is that more true than in Fluid Framework.”

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