Microsoft's Graph wants to turn user data into business intelligence it can sell

In Microsoft's future, if you're chatting about pizza on Skype, Domino's could pitch you a deal--with your permission.

microsoft graph
Credit: Microsoft

How does data become information? Through context. And that’s what Microsoft’s new Microsoft Graph aims to do: Collect data points about you, then turn around and sell it to apps and services--with your permission, of course. 

In March 2014, Microsoft announced what it called the “Office Graph,” which aggregated data points like your calendar, business relationships, company hierarchy and other factors to paint a more complete picture of your life. Microsoft took a slice of that data and created Delve, one of the apps within Office 2016.

Now, Microsoft has broader ambitions. What it would like to do is to take your user  information and use it in much the same way that Google reads your email to understand when your flight is going to leave, or Microsoft’s Cortana tracks packages. What Google doesn’t have access to, though, is all that information you’ve tucked away into Office: not just email, but documents, OneNote notes, and the like.

As the original Office Graph names suggests, Microsoft sees the Graph first as a business tool. Entire companies have already been built around the sort of business intelligence that Microsoft hopes to provide, whether it be customer-relationship management, logistics, or sales analysis tools. Microsoft hopes to take its Office contextual data and provide it as a service to third parties. Eventually it could take data from a company like Salesforce, integrate it with the Office data, and provide a richer mix of data back to its customers. Currently, its partners include Do.com, SkyHigh Networks, Smartsheet, and OfficeAtWork.

What this means for you: As a consumer, possibly very little. Rob Lefferts, who is overseeing Microsoft Graph, said that consumers won’t share data via the Graph with anyone or anything by default, unless they opt in. Privacy controls in the workplace will be overseen by IT administrators, however. That should sound familiar to anyone who has used Cortana or another tool. 

The gateway to the Microsoft cloud

Currently, the Microsoft Graph serves as a single point for its new API to touch Microsoft’s data—which, for right now, covers both Azure as well as Office 365.  “We are building toward a near future where multiple graphs and all APIs throughout Microsoft contribute to, and are accessible through, a single unified gateway to the power of the Microsoft cloud,” Microsoft added in a blog post. Graph will be announced at Microsoft's Connect(); developer conference in New York.

So what data is Microsoft sharing? Information about users, files, Messages, Groups, Events, personal Contacts, Mail, Calendar, and Devices. Developers can also preview data concerning Notifications, SDKs, People, organizational contacts, the original Office Graph, Planner, OneNote, OneDrive Files, Outlook and more.

That already sounds like a lot, but it's just the beginning for Microsoft. “Our vision is pretty broad there,” Lefferts said. “We will keep growing the Graph. We will make it broader and we will make it deeper.”

Lefferts said that the data will be handled according to existing privacy constraints: If a piece of data is determined to be public, it will be analyzed by the Graph; if not, it won’t be. Consumers will be able to decide this themselves with their own personal editions of Office; at work, though, that decision will be left to an IT admin. The idea is to bring office workers third-party tools that help them do their jobs more efficiently, but that means giving up data in return.

You’ve seen this all a bit already, with Uber building in integration into Outlook and other add-ins being tacked on to other Office apps, as well as Office Groups.

It will be interesting to see how office workers and consumers alike adjust to the new reality of sharing data. Technically, a corporate lawyer might argue, the intellectual property you create at work belongs to your employer. But business careers have slowly encroached into our personal lives. Will we be able to maintain secure borders around our personal data?

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