Microsoft's high hopes for Big Data

Microsoft's high hopes for Big Data

There is a parallel universe that exists in the world of Big Data. Where cloud-based servers, in-memory technology and ambient intelligence abound.

I know. I was there last week.

Actually, it was a Microsoft event in San Francisco where its new CEO, Mr Satya Nadella, spoke about how Big Data and its twin, Business Intelligence, were going to be the next big thing for the software giant.

For a newbie like me, it could have been another world with its own unintelligible language and strange ideas.

But, wait, I'm a journalist and information is my speciality.

So, what's the big deal about this?

The world is awash with information since everything became digitised, and more and more devices have built-in computers (it's called ubiquitous computing).

When you buy something online, read content on the Internet, book hotel rooms or airline tickets, post stuff on social media, get caught in a traffic jam that's being monitored electronically, the information sits somewhere in the digital world.

It's useless junk until you collect, organise and analyse it for some specific purpose.

That's what this business is about.

It could be finding out what people are buying, which websites they are visiting, what issues they are discussing before a major election, and so on.

Because the amount of data is so huge, you need really powerful computers to do all that processing in the blink of an eye.

It wasn't possible 10, perhaps even five years ago, but because computing power has multiplied so rapidly over the years and costs so much less, it has become possible to do this even with ordinary laptops.

Microsoft wants to make it even more accessible to the ordinary person by building this capability into its everyday business software, such as Excel.

It believes that, currently, Big Data is in its infant stage, and of interest only to those with highly specialised knowledge, such as IT people.

It's like in the early days of motor cars, when they were driven only by skilled people who knew about cars.

It was said then that the auto industry couldn't grow very fast because it was limited by the number of trained drivers.

That turned out to be completely untrue and it is what Microsoft is betting would happen to Big Data.

If it succeeds and every keyboard warrior with an Office programme can do what used to be done only by the IT department acting on the instruction of the Chief Information Officer, it will be a major breakthrough indeed.

Microsoft also wants to make this fun and its number-crunching software includes exciting graphic capabilities that can turn hundreds of boring rows of numbers into dancing graphics.

Making this work for companies will require what Mr Nadella called the data culture, where employees at every level are empowered to use and analyse the information they possess to help them do their jobs better.

Can it make for better decision-making in the business world, though?

Companies such as Microsoft obviously believe the more information you have, the better the judgment calls.

Their call now is to bet big on Big Data.

The writer is Editor At Large of The Straits Times.

hanfk@sph.com.sg

This article was published on April 23 in Digital Life, The Straits Times.

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