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Web 2.0 Summit: Cloud Computing Smackdown

Microsoft competitors Marc Benioff of Salesforce and Dave Girouard of Google sound off on Microsoft's Azure venture into the cloud.

The introduction of major new products in the tech industry invariably elicits comments from competitors about how the announcement validates the market.

So it was at the Web 2.0 Summit during a discussion of cloud computing when panel moderator Tim O'Reilly mentioned the introduction last week of Windows Azure, Microsoft's forthcoming cloud computing platform.

Yet few in the industry can hone the competitive forget-me-not into such a cutting quip as Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce.com.

"I think it's fantastic that they're coming in and saying that they’re going to have something someday," said Benioff with a hint of sarcasm, eliciting chuckles from an audience familiar with Microsoft's habit of announcing products years before they appear.

Microsoft had no friends among the companies represented by the panelists. In addition to Benioff, there was Dave Girouard, general manager of Google's enterprise business; Paul Maritz, CEO of VMware; and Kevin Lynch, CTO of Adobe.

Google's Girouard sounded more earnest than Benioff in his version of the validation remark: "It's a great endorsement by Microsoft that this is the future." He added that once Microsoft develops its online applications, the "apples and oranges" comparison that he believes now exists between Google's and Microsoft's productivity apps would become more of a fair comparison. And he said he was confident that customers will embrace Google's apps.

VMwave's Martiz offered his version of the remark: "The Microsoft Azure announcement is a great effort by Ray [Ozzie] to turn an oil tanker."

With such sniping, you might think there's a war on. Indeed, there is, for control of the cloud.

In September, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison derided cloud computing as marketing gibberish. Benioff's answer: "I think Sun Tzu said it best: When weak, feign strength. That's [Ellison's] approach."

While few would honestly call Oracle -- or Microsoft, for that matter -- weak, there's a sense in the tech industry that the old high-margin enterprise software business model is on its way out. Hence the half-serious question that O'Reilly put to Benioff, "When are you going to buy Oracle?"

Yet before victory can be declared by the likes of Google or Salesforce, questions need to be answered. Not the typical questions clouding the cloud, like security and reliability, which already have answers for those ready to accept them.

For Maritz and Lynch, the issue is lock-in.

"One of the challenges of these platform-as-a-service plays is they're highly proprietary," Maritz said.

Lynch concurred. "You do have a level of real lock-in in the cloud there," he said "That's risky. We risk the Balkanization of the Web on the server side."

In otherwise, until the dust settles and issues of data portability, application portability, and data ownership get resolved to the satisfaction of necessarily risk-averse companies, you may have no choice but to pick a side.

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