• 04/04/2014
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Microsoft Woos Developers At Build

Does a barrage of Azure announcements indicate that Microsoft may finally be shifting away from a "Windows-first" mindset?
Microsoft Office For iPad: 7 Questions Answered
Microsoft Office For iPad: 7 Questions Answered
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Microsoft's epic opening Build keynote ranged from a new Start menu for Windows to Cortana and other personalized touches in Windows Phone 8.1 to Universal Apps that span the Microsoft ecosystem, including Xbox. How could the company keep pace during Build's second, more technical keynote? By announcing 44 Microsoft Azure features for developers.

Elaborating on CEO Satya Nadella's "cloud first, mobile first" strategy, Scott Guthrie, Microsoft's new cloud and enterprise chief, told Build attendees that infrastructure and platform services will merge into a single cohesive experience, enabling IT pros to work within a unified set of cloud tools.

Several of Microsoft's announcements spoke to this trend. The new Azure Preview Portal, for example, unites Microsoft and third-party services into a single view. This allows developers to manage resources such as Azure Web Sites and databases jointly, rather than handling them separately.

[Is the battle already over? Read How Apps Won The Mobile Web.]

The portal also includes a map that displays the health of cloud infrastructure across geographies, which should help IT pros identify and quickly drill into any problems. Users can also categorically monitor costs through the portal, which, like many contemporary Microsoft products, uses a tiled interface.

Figure 2:
The Azure Preview Portal's Billing and Account feature.(Source: Microsoft)
The Azure Preview Portal's Billing and Account feature.
(Source: Microsoft)

Microsoft announced general availability of Visual Studio Online, the online version of its tools for app builders. Continuing Microsoft's theme of merged management environments and simplified workflows, Visual Studio Online includes a lightweight editor that lets developers modify, debug, and analyze code without leaving Azure.

For web developers, Microsoft integrated support for Autoscale and Traffic Manager into Azure Web Sites, which should give admins more control over service loads. Azure Web Sites also offer a free SSL certificate for better out-of-box security.

Another new feature: increased capacity for SQL databases on Azure. Customers can now store up to 500 GB of data, up from 150 GB. Microsoft also said its cloud will now protect SQL databases with a self-service recovery feature that automatically generates 30-day backups. Microsoft also promised Azure now boasts 99.95% uptime.

Microsoft unveiled a number of open-source initiatives, including a partnership with Xamarin to establish a new .Net Foundation. Microsoft's contributions range from the VB and C# programming languages to the Azure software development kit to a preview of its "Roslyn" .Net Compiler Platform. Microsoft also open-sourced its Windows library for JavaScript, WinJS, which should interest developers of web apps.

Microsoft took the opportunity to tout Azure's growing accomplishments. The cloud platform has expanded rapidly, supporting not only Microsoft cloud products such as Xbox Live, OneDrive, and Office 365, but also thousands of websites, the back ends of scores of mobile apps, and more. Still, Amazon and Google's respective cloud offerings have staked formidable ground, as well, which is why the companies have continually readjusted pricing and introduced features over the last year.

Figure 1:
Microsoft's Scott Guthrie.(Source: Microsoft)
Microsoft's Scott Guthrie.
(Source: Microsoft)

According to Guthrie, more than 57% of Fortune 500 companies use Azure, which powers more than a quarter-million websites. He said that Microsoft's cloud has absorbed more than 300 new features since last year's Build, and that Azure helped NBC deliver online streaming of its recent Olympics coverage.

Overall, the announcements typify Azure's movement toward simplified management and workflows and support for diverse workloads. The company made clear at Build that Windows remains an important part of its strategy, but Azure represents a shift. A few years ago, Microsoft was still denying that iPads and Android devices were even relevant. Now it has conceded that iOS and Android apps will remain popular -- perhaps more popular than most Windows apps.

Given this reality, Microsoft wants iOS and Android developers to use its tools and clouds to build their apps. This agenda is about attracting the new, generally younger breed of mobile developers. But Microsoft also needs to keep its legacy developers invested. Guthrie and others acknowledged this point explicitly and emphasized that, with Microsoft's tools, veteran developers can embrace mobile apps and the cloud while relying on their programming skills.

Forrester analyst Jeffrey Hammond previously told InformationWeek that Microsoft's Universal Apps are "enough to quiet the rebellion amongst the diehard Microsoft devs" who have found it impractical to build apps for so many different platforms.

Following the second keynote, Hammond said Microsoft might be making inroads with younger developers. "The mobile services make it easier to create a back end for Modern apps," and in many ways, Microsoft projected a "whatever-you-need" mentality during the conference.

"All in all, I think it's been a very positive Build," Hammond said. "There will be many devs attracted to this new mentality that puts Microsoft before Windows, as opposed to Windows before Microsoft."

Emerging standards for hybrid clouds and converged datacenters promise to break vendors' proprietary hold. Also in the Lose The Lock-In issue of InformationWeek: The future datacenter will come in a neat package (free registration required).


Microsoft is making the right moves

Bravo to Microsoft for opening up. But if the company succeeds in making its development tools (through Xamarain) the preferred way to generate cross-platform apps for Android, iOS, OS X, the Web, and Windows, how long will it be until Apple or Google finds a way to break Microsoft's toolchain?

Apple, Google, and Microsoft have all demonstrated that they will open up when behind and become more closed when ahead.

Re: Microsoft is making the right moves

Azure may compete with more upstart infrastructure service providers such as Google and Amazon, but that doesn't diminish its clout.

Fortune 500 companies are willing to pay for reliability and support, which is what Microsoft continues to do really well.

After all, isn't it easier to build out an all-Microsoft solution? You have less fragmented parts.

I'm not shilling for Microsoft here, I just see what larger organizations value from Microsoft's Server and Tools division. 

Cloud before Windows, for Microsoft to thrive

That's a good report on Build. I would say Satya Nadella is putting cloud as a platform before Windows as a platform, while trying to hold onlo all Microsoft-oriented developers. It was the loss of interest by the young development community that was truly threatening to Microsoft..

End of an Era?

Microsoft was king of the hill for a long time, but it seems as though we've reached the end of that era, but Microsoft is still trying to hold on.  The one-size fits all model may no longer apply to what I see as three groups with increasingly different needs.

General end-users - This group has basic needs which can often be addressed by a mobile device that has a web browser and the ability to install apps, many of which are free or ad-supported.  Easy home integration and trendy styles/features are likely to appeal to this group.  So far, Apple seems to be the leader here.  Samsung seems to be following that lead with its home appliances and popular galaxy devices.

Power users / IT Pros - This group will likely want to hang on to the full feature set offered by a traditional operating system as well as the emerging functionality of mobile operating systems and apps.  I'm guessing this group will end up as a small minority.  With less consumers available to spread the cost of software development, some applications will no longer be developed for local install and only be available in subscription based web apps.  This may lead this group to resort to open source options.

Enterprise - This group might start to lean toward solutions that are more specifically tailored to their needs.  That should open up competition from all over the place as solutions are not necessarily built with Windows or Azure.  For example, IBM sells host servers with an open-source based hyper-visor that is reputed to be very robust and never need updating or restarting.

It seems that the only place for Microsoft to go is to specialize in some particular niche and be happy that they had a long run as #1 in many categories.