Microsoft is holding its annual TechEd conference next week in New Orleans, where industry watchers are looking for Microsoft to sustain the buzz around Windows Phone 7, as well as share details about its cloud computing strategy in general and Azure cloud services in particular.
Mobile momentum is Microsoft's to lose. With Windows Phone 7, Microsoft is making a risky bid to win a big piece of the mobile market. But its mobile news, if there is any, won't be able to escape comparison to Apple's expected news around the iPhone OS 4.0 release and possibly a fourth-generation iPhone handset.
To sustain the positive buzz around Windows Phone 7, Microsoft needs to keep courting developers, who so far have been working with early versions of both the operating system and development tools. On their wish lists are real handsets that meet the Windows Phone 7 hardware specification and beta versions of the operating system itself.
There are any number of cloud topics Microsoft could address at TechEd, from its struggle to wrench momentum away from Google Apps, to security of the cloud, and licensing the use of Windows in cloud services. But Microsoft's strategy around Azure seems to be less well-defined than its other cloud ventures, and therefore may receive a bigger focus at TechEd, analysts say.
"I expect them to make a major move" regarding Azure, says Burton Group analyst Drue Reeves, who believes Microsoft has to walk a fine line with Azure, which delivers a cloud-based operating system, relational database and several other services.
Azure potentially poses a conflict of interest for Microsoft, he says. Microsoft wants partners to use the Hyper-V virtualization technology and .Net software framework to build cloud services, but the market presence of Azure might dissuade cloud providers from using those Microsoft technologies, Reeves says.
"If you're a new provider, are you going to use Hyper-V, or are you going to use .Net and offer that as a service and compete with Azure? Not likely," Reeves says. Microsoft is "providing the enabling technologies for cloud providers and selling against them at the same time."
Azure exited beta and went into general availability on February 1 of this year. But Microsoft has been relatively quiet overall about the cloud service. "I have a list of questions to ask [Microsoft] about Azure," says Pund-IT analyst Charles King.
In addition to the cloud-based operating system and SQL database, Azure includes a content delivery network. King says he wants to know what other Azure services will be rolled out, and what kind of interest Azure is receiving from customers so far. While most big IT vendors are focusing on enterprises and service providers, King says Microsoft may be ideally positioned to market its cloud service to small-to-midsized businesses.
"Microsoft is the de-facto vendor of choice for most small businesses," King says. "I think small- and medium-sized businesses are in a position to really gain some interesting benefits from the cloud." Reeves says Azure seems to be in flux, with Microsoft still "trying to figure out whether it's platform-as-a-service or infrastructure-as-a-service."
Cloud platforms allow developers to build and deploy web applications without any internal hardware and software, while infrastructure services deliver raw computing and storage capacity to customers.