What we need to hear from Microsoft at TechEd about the cloud

New Orleans conference a test for selling cloud computing to the masses

All eyes, ears and browsers will be on Microsoft this coming week as it convenes its TechEd summit in New Orleans. By the end of the week, I'm hoping to get more clarity on the company's cloud computing strategy and how likely it is to succeed.

Search the word "cloud" on the TechEd Web site and 67 breakout sessions pop up in the (Bing, I take it) results. With titles like "How are YOU using Windows Azure?" "Running Hosted Services in the Cloud" and "How Will Cloud Computing Change Your Life?" the sessions are expected to be detailed, comprehensive and, apparently, life-affirming.

While only one cloud session mentions the name Google in its synopsis, and even then only in passing, Google is likely to be the subject of much discussion anyway as its early cloud success stands as perhaps the biggest obstacle to Microsoft being as big in cloud computing as it was in on-premise software-based computing.

Google's offering worker productivity software in the cloud with its Google Docs suite, a rival to the Office suite, has forced Redmond to blink. "[That] has clearly caused Microsoft to change the way it approaches the office market. Microsoft is offering its own online services now," wrote Network World's Jon Brodkin April 28.

But Microsoft needs to do more than just play catch-up to compete with Google. It needs to defend its installed base of enterprise customers from encroachment by Google and other cloud competitors. but as I reported May 21, Microsoft is starting from back in the field, not just on delivery of applications in the cloud, but in other aspects of cloud computing. The consulting and research firm BTC Logic produced five top 10 lists of the best cloud vendors in specific categories, Cloud Infrastructure, Cloud Foundation, Network Services, Cloud Platform, and Cloud Applications. Microsoft appeared on only three of those five lists and its highest ranking was only number five in the Applications category with its Business Productivity Online Services suite. Salesforce.com's App-Exchange and Google Apps ranked first and second in that category, respectively.

Concerns have also been raised recently about whether Microsoft may be working at cross-purposes in the cloud. Again, my colleague Jon Brodkin reported June 3 a Burton Group analyst's observation that Microsoft is selling its Hyper-V hypervisor for virtualization and its .Net software development platform for creating cloud services at the same time it's also selling its Microsoft Azure cloud-delivered server operating system.

I'll be looking to hear from New Orleans on how Microsoft plans to claw its way up the ladder in the cloud services business and how different its strategy will be from what competitors are already doing. I've been skeptical of what I've heard so far.

To be sure, Microsoft can point to some early success in cloud computing; a consulting firm presented case studies at the SaaScon software-as-a-service conference in April demonstrating how competitive Microsoft can be. In two cases, Microsoft beat out Google to win contracts. So there. And its Windows 7 desktop OS is clearly a hit with consumers and, possibly later, with enterprises.

Microsoft, of course, is still the largest software company in the world with a large installed base and acknowledges that it can't hold onto its installed software license business model any longer. But with a string of recent setbacks -- Apple surpassing Microsoft in market capitalization; Google replacing Windows on its computers with Chrome -- it needs some good news and TechEd needs to deliver.

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