Windows Azure opens for business on Jan. 1, 2010

This morning, Microsoft kicked off its 2009 Professional Developer Conference in Los Angeles. Typically, Microsoft times PDC around new operating systems that are testing and launching in the near future. Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2 launched less than a month ago. So what operating is left? Windows Azure Platform (Day 1 Live Blog).

Ray Ozzie, Microsoft's chief software architect, took the keynote stage in typical fashion. Ozzie is a brainy type, who talks like his head is in the clouds, which is perhaps appropriate for someone laying out Microsoft's cloud computing strategy. He introduced the world to Azure Services Platform a year ago, during PDC 08. Today, he added when to why, what and where about what Microsoft now calls the Windows Azure Platform.

Microsoft will launch Azure as a production service on January 1st, but customers won't be billed until February 1st, so the first month will be free. The Technical Preview now underway will continue through the end of the year.

Ozzie said that a few companies would take Azure into production starting today. With that as introduction, Ozzie announced that Automattic, creator of open-source WordPress blogging system, would be one of those companies. From a marketing perspective, it was a stunning announcement, since Automattic uses open-source tools like Apache and MySQL. The message: Azure isn't just about Microsoft products or development tools. I must say it was simply shocking to see WordPress creator Matt Mullenweg on the PDC stage.

In another brilliant marketing move, Vivek Kundra, the US government's chief information officer, appeared via satellite link. Many news reports have painted Kundra as a Google hosted apps lover. He is on record supporting the use of open development tools for government online services. While Kundra mostly spoke about the government's open-development efforts, his appearance at PDC is good for Microsoft by association. Kundra concluded by saying that he looks forward to the "thousands of applications that are going to be created."

Azure Primer

Azure is, simply put, an operating system in the clouds. Developers write to an applications layer hosted on datacenters, as they might for an operating system on the PC or other device. This morning, Ozzie described Azure as a cloud OS "designed for the future but made familiar for today." Azure also provides data services.

During the keynote, Ozzie also announced Microsoft Pinpoint for building online marketplaces and catalogs. Related, starting today, Microsoft is previewing "Dallas," which Ozzie said is "built on Windows Azure and SQL Azure." Dallas showcases how Azure can be used to provide cloud-based data services.

More broadly, Microsoft sees the cloud as unifying business users' and consumers' experiences with existing products. "Many platforms means many choices," Ozzie asserted. In dealing with these choices, Microsoft has but one goal: "Focus on leverage and seamlessness in everything that we do."

Put another way, Ozzie described Microsoft's broader paroduct strategy as "three screens and a cloud." He spoke about Web-based experiences delivered to various devices.

But the strategy is incomplete, which Ozzie acknowledged by telling PDC attendees what's coming next year. He promised that Microsoft would reveal its next-generation development strategy for Windows Live and for Windows Phone during the MIX 10 Web developer conference.

Ozzie praised Windows 7, claiming it could for developers "sweep through and reinvigorate" the "fragmented" PC market. Perhaps Steven Sinofsky, Windows & Windows Live division president, will explain how during tomorrow's keynote.

Storm Clouds Rising

In the year since Microsoft debuted Azure, with expectation of late 2009 or 2010 release, much has changed for the company and its customers. The late-September 2008 stock market crash sent IT budgets tumbling, millions of global information workers into unemployment and Microsoft sales falling. For Microsoft flagship products, Office and Windows, 2009 has brought slower sales.

Meanwhile, the social, cloud-based Web is seemingly advancing exponentially. During his keynote, Ozzie said that Microsoft started talking about services "four years ago this month." There was something prescient in the timing. Nearly all the most popular social services in use today didn't exist before 2006. Many of them gained huge mass-market success in 2009.

For example, most social media startups, whose products and services are taken for granted today, came to market in the last three years. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube opened to the public in 2006. Most other popular or growing popular social media tools launched within the last three years: Disqus, FriendFeed, tumbr, Twine, Qik and USTREAM, among many others.

Meanwhile, in the year since Microsoft announced Azure, smartphone and netbook sales have surged, creating new mobile platforms for consuming cloud services. In the smartphone market, Apple's App Store/iPhone/iPod touch platform is doing for software plus services today what Microsoft is talking about delivering tomorrow.

The point: The cloud isn't static. It is a storm moving across the technological and societal landscapes. Can Microsoft keep pace? That's the question PDC may answer over the next three days.

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