Microsoft’s ‘All In’ the Cloud

Just like the late winter sky outside the Paul G. Allen building on the campus of the University of Washington, Microsoft’s future is in the clouds–Cloud computing to be exact. “For the Cloud, we’re all in,” Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said to students in his first-ever speech on the campus that sits just across Lake Washington from Microsoft’s Redmond, WA. headquarters.

First of all, said Ballmer, there are great opportunities and great responsibilities that are going to require “a range of innovations” and opportunities to create new software to change the computing environment and the way people use the Cloud going forward. “The amount of invention that has to happen remains high.” However, those opportunities do not come without responsibilities, including protecting users’ privacy and confidentiality.

Second, software in the Cloud should learn, and help users learn, as well as to help them make decisions and take actions. “The Cloud needs to learn about you, (to) have the ability to understand what you’re interested in.” For instance, a future app in the Cloud needs to understand a user’s interest in the health care debate, for example, and provide actionable information that the user can act on.

Ballmer’s talk was, as usual, peppered with demo’s showing off the company’s products. In one demonstration, a Microsoft engineer unveiled recent advances in the company’s Bing search technology that let the user zoom in from a map to a “synthetic” aerial view of buildings in the area to street side images, and be able to look up to the skies overhead to show what constellations are in view at the time, with images provided by Microsoft Research’s Worldwide Telescope.

Throughout, Ballmer somewhat uncharacteristically gave credit to competitors like Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) and Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) for making important innovations, while at the same time saying that Microsoft brings a unique vision of its own to the future of Cloud computing. That led to principle No. 3, that the Cloud will enhance both social and professional interactions, particularly as the line between work and play becomes increasingly blurred.

The demo to illustrate that point showed off the UK’s Sky TV’s “Sky Player,” an online guide and entertainment software that, among other features, lets the user watch movies and TV shows from a “virtual” living room, where avatars of the user’s friends gather to watch together.

Fourth, “the Cloud wants smarter devices,” Ballmer said. “The devices you use do matter.” He cited but didn’t demo Microsoft’s upcoming Project Natal controller for Xbox that turns the user’s body into the game controller. “Natal recognizes you, your voice, and your gestures.” Natal is due out for sale by the holiday sales season.

Finally, Ballmer said, the Cloud drives server advances that, in turn, drive the Cloud. He pointed to Microsoft’s Azure Cloud computing platform as well as versions of Microsoft’s server products, such as Exchange, SQL Server, SharePoint, and Office, that the company is already providing as hosted services in the Cloud.

“They are all focused in on the Cloud today,” he said. “This is the bet for our company.”

A streaming video of Ballmer’s speech is available online.

Stuart Johnston is a contributing writer at, the news service of, the network for technology professionals.