Microsoft’s Head Is in the Clouds

It was pretty much all about the cloud at Microsoft’s Professional Developers Conference, held last week at its Redmond, Wash., corporate campus.

CEO Steve Ballmer and other executives spoke about how the software giant’s latest developments span the PC, the mobile phone and the cloud.

They also highlighted the revamp of Windows Azure as a PaaS (Platform as a Service) offering, pushing it as a next-generation operating system.

Microsoft further used the occasion to unveil major changes in its browser with the release of IE9 Platform Preview 6 for developers.

It’s not clear, however, what effect its ramped-up push into the cloud will have on the software giant’s competitive position in the short term.

Enhancing Azure

At PDC 2010, Microsoft positioned Windows Azure as a PaaS. A PaaS lets users set up the platform they heed – — the hardware, operating systems, IT infrastructure and tools — automatically on the cloud, instead of having to physically source some or all of these components.

Microsoft announced Virtual Machine Role, as well as Server Application Virtualization — two new Windows Azure capabilities that will make it a PaaS.

Virtual Machine Role lets users run an instance of Windows Server 2008 R2 on Microsoft’s cloud. This lets developers move their apps to the cloud more easily.

Server Application Virtualization lets devs transfer app images to Windows Azure.

Microsoft also announced Windows Azure services, which let developers create rich cloud apps. One is the Windows Azure AppFabric Composition Model. The model provides critical application deployment and management capabilities that help devs assemble services more quickly.

Another service is the Windows Azure Marketplace. This includes DataMarket, previously codenamed “Project Dallas.” The Windows Azure Marketplace offers premium (for-pay) and public content, including demographic, financial, mapping and entertainment data. It was launched Friday and has more than 35 content providers offering data subscriptions.

Microsoft also introduced the Extra Small Widows Azure Instance for developers. This is priced at 5 US cents per compute hour.

“This emphasis on the cloud is likely Ray Ozzie’s signature contribution to Microsoft, and it looks like he actually did an impressive job of getting a lot of folks who don’t normally work together to cooperate,” Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, told TechNewsWorld.

“I think the impact is going to be positive for Azure,” John Barnes, chief technology officer at Model Metrics, told TechNewsWorld. “We’re going to evaluate it because we’re hearing more and more positive things about it.”

However, Microsoft may find the going tougher than expected. “Depending on the enterprise, there’s still some skepticism about the cloud,” Barnes said.

It will be five to 10 years before people fully accept moving everything to the cloud, he added.

Microsoft did not respond to TechNewsWorld’s requests for comment by press time.

Building Up IE’s Muscles

As for IE9, the next version of Microsoft’s browser, the focus is strongly on HTML5. The company is working on interoperability, committing to the W3C and the standards process. The IE9 beta has been downloaded 10 million times since it was launched about six weeks ago, Microsoft said.

Microsoft on Friday made IE9 Platform Preview 6 available for developers at IETestDrive.com. This preview offers better performance and quality, as wel as increased standards support.

For example, IE9 now supports CSS3 2D transforms. It also supports full hardware acceleration.

“IE9 is the only browser in the market that is 100 percent hardware accelerated,” Enderle said. “The others haven’t been able to pull this off yet, and it’s a huge improvement over IE8 as a result.”

Although Microsoft’s pushing of hardware performance will slow down adoption of IE9 at first, it will appeal to those who buy new hardware and are most likely to buy other devices, Enderle pointed out. “It’s called going where the money is, and this practice is more consistent with Apple’s practice than it is with Microsoft’s,” he added.

“Microsoft’s seen what happened with Google Chrome and has tried to make its browser much faster and tighter,” Model Metrics’ Barnes remarked.

Still, this may not be enough to stem the growing popularity of Google’s Chrome browser, which been making inroads into the browser market at Microsoft’s expense, of late.

“Whether people will go back to IE after having used Chrome or Firefox remains to be seen,” Barnes said.

HTML5 to Kill Off Flash?

Why the heavy play on HTML5? Is Microsoft tired of Adobe Flash?

“Flash has issues, and, while Microsoft will continue to support it, Flash is somewhat of an embarrassment because it should have been Microsoft’s technology,” Enderle said.

“Flash has its roots in ‘Chrome Effects,’ a project that was killed because of internal politics. Microsoft probably would just as soon see Flash go away,” he added.

“Flash, HTML5 and Silverlight all have their places,” Model Metrics’ Barnes suggested. “I think HTML5 is great for cross-platform and cross-browser compatibility.”

Flash and Silverlight have a place in the short term, and they’ll probably coexist with HTML5 for the next three to five years, Barnes said. “I know Adobe’s doing a lot with Flash, and it talks a lot about how HTML5 and Flash can coexist — and the same can be said for Silverlight.”

Apple, too, is pushing for HTML5 instead of Flash, which it describes as old technology and prone to malware attacks.

No Move to Mobile?

Talk of a move toward mobile computing has been gaining traction for some time. Apple seems to have taken this to heart, revamping its MacBook Air family’s user interface with features formerly only seen in mobile devices.

Is Microsoft missing the boat here? There’s almost nothing heard about a mobile version of IE9.

Perhaps not. At PDC 2010, Microsoft demonstrated using Visual Studio Express for Windows Phone to develop apps. VSE is the free version of Visual Studio.

Devs can use a variety of ways to get data with WinPho7. These include REST, JSON and Web services, and Microsoft on Friday announced it’s shipping a new OData library devs can use. This provides standards-based OData to consume and query data on the Web.

“The Windows Phone 7 offering has the best browser Microsoft has ever put in a phone,” said Enderle. “It’s just that Microsoft had issues with Flash initially.”

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