During Thursday's keynote at Microsoft's Build conference, the company announced several new services for Windows Azure, its cloud computing platform. Microsoft hopes the offerings will inspire developers to make Azure the cloud infrastructure of choice, even for apps that run on non-Windows platforms. Microsoft also touted not only the growing number of companies that use the platform but also how Azure supports many of the company's homegrown products, such as Office 365.
Consistent with the Wednesday keynote led by CEO Steve Ballmer, Thursday's session emphasized that Microsoft is a company in the midst of rapid transition, much of it fueled by the rise of mobile devices. Ballmer declared last fall that the company would become a "devices and services" provider, and he reiterated the point when he spoke at Build.
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Reports claim the CEO plans to restructure the company to reach this goal. In the meantime, company executives spent Thursday emphasizing that Azure represents a new, more open and collaborative attitude between Microsoft, developers, and competing platforms.
The announcements included the general availability of Windows Azure Mobile Services and Windows Azure Websites.
With Azure Mobile, Microsoft is trying to position its cloud as a foundation for developers who write for mobile platforms, including not only Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 but also iOS and Android. The company announced it will give mobile developers who use the Azure framework access to a new 20-MB SQL database.
Windows Azure Web Sites allows developers to create websites and applications in seconds, according to Microsoft officials. To appeal to a large number of Web developers, Azure Web Sites is fairly flexible, with support for a range of languages and frameworks, WordPress and other open-source applications, and multiple databases.
Both Azure Web Sites and Azure Mobile suggest an acknowledgement that the computing world has changed. Whereas Microsoft's Windows and Office software were once the primary vehicles for end users, iOS, Android, OS X and Chrome OS have changed the terrain. Legacy software remains crucial, but developments such as the cloud, Web apps, and various mobile ecosystems have altered the way software is written, and the way companies and developers make money.
Had Microsoft remained defined by Windows and Office, the new landscape would have diminished the company's clout, confining it to traditional PC work at a time when all the growth is on the mobile scene. But as Ballmer and other Microsoft executives argued, Windows is adapting to the times, and Wednesday's keynote was about keeping as many users and developers in the Windows ecosystem as possible.
The company implied Thursday that Azure is another big evolution in its own right -- but one that acknowledges people are using operating systems in addition to Windows. As Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 mature, they might convert users of other OSes. But Android and iOS are here to stay. By 2014, Gartner expects that the number of new Apple products shipped will almost equal the number of new Windows products, and that Android devices will handily outnumber both.
With Azure, Microsoft has a hedge against this disruption: It can make up whatever it loses in the personal computing space, and then some, by becoming a key cloud infrastructure provider for apps and services of all sorts, regardless of platform.
In Ballmer's vision, Microsoft is working to define the right balance between openness and a more proprietary attitude that protects the larger Windows ecosystem. The company's reluctance to release Office for the iPad, and its decision to use Office for the iPhone to push Office 365 sales represent examples of the latter strategy. But Azure represents the former.
Thursday's keynote included a demonstration of an iOS app being added to Windows Azure through a Mac. Though Microsoft representatives joked that founder and former CEO Bill Gates might descend from the rafters and kick the rival device offstage, the intermingling of Windows, OS X and iOS was striking.
Indeed, though tools familiar to longtime Windows developers were mentioned, Build was also about reaching out to the new breed of app-makers whose interests are more rooted in start-ups, mobility and social media than in classic Win32 software. The presentation included an appearance by Box CEO Aaron Levie, who talked about "a whole new Microsoft," and how open the company has become. Box's links to Microsoft will include Windows Azure Active Directory tie-ins to help authenticate users, and to make the sensitive content that Box hosts more secure. Other hooks between Azure Active Directory and third parties mentioned during the keynote included DocuSign, Google Apps, Salesforce.com, Evernote and even Amazon Web Services, Azure's nemesis in the cloud market.
Microsoft has reason to be confident in Azure. Satya Nadella, head of the company's Server and Tools division, said during the keynote that Azure supports Skype's 299 million users, 50 million Office Web apps, and 1 billion mobile notifications from Bing per month. SkyDrive, he said, has 250 million users, and Xbox Live has almost 50 million subscribers. In an important transition for Microsoft's long-term licensing strategy, the platform also has helped Office 365 go from one-time purchases to perpetual subscriptions.
Nadella said that more than 50% of the Fortune 500 uses Azure, and that its customer base of almost 250,000 is growing by around 1,000 a day. Despite this success on the larger marker, it was a strong statement that so many Microsoft products rely on the company's cloud platform. If the company uses Azure for so many critical services, Nadella implied, developers and customers can feel certain Microsoft's cloud is ready for prime time.
In addition to Azure Website and Azure Mobile Services, Microsoft also previewed an auto scale technology that allows compute capacity to be spun up or down based on definable parameters, and application access enhancements for Windows Azure Active Directory, including single sign-on for cloud-based applications.
Additionally, Microsoft released a preview version of Visual Studio 2013, a toolkit that helps developers write apps for Windows 8's Modern UI, and which company representatives demonstrated during Wednesday's keynote. Wednesday's upgraded developer tools also included a preview of .NET Framework 4.5.1.
Other keynote topics included a new advertising SDK for Windows 8.1, and an updated advertising SDK for Windows 8, as well as a preview of Windows Embedded 8.1 Industry.
Although Build has confirmed much about Microsoft's vision for the cloud and modern, multi-device mobile workflows, some questions are still unanswered. During the keynote, for example, Steve Guggenheimer, VP of Microsoft's developer and platform evangelism, noted that the Xbox shares a common core with the rest of the Windows ecosystem. The gaming platform's openness to third-party developers has been a subject of contention, and though Guggenheimer bluntly said, "Nothing to announce today," his reference to an ecosystem-wide codebase is sure to fuel speculation.