Steve Ballmer at UW: Is This Microsoft’s Cloud Computing Strategy, or Just Internet Software?

The first sign that Steve Ballmer was in the house came when I saw a cop car parked outside the University of Washington’s Computer Science & Engineering building. Then there were the paper signs telling you where to line up for his 10 am talk today.

The Microsoft CEO doesn’t make many local public appearances, so it was a rare opportunity to see him speak about company strategy at the UW. It was his first talk in the Allen Center, which was jam-packed and standing room only. His focus today was supposed to be on “cloud computing,” but it was really much broader than what most people call cloud computing these days. It was more about Internet software in general and Microsoft’s vision for reinventing itself in the era of the Web. (What this says specifically about Windows Azure—Microsoft’s cloud computing platform currently being rolled out—I’m not quite sure yet.)

In fact, my broadest takeaway is that there’s still a lot of ambiguity out there around what cloud computing means. I thought techies had come to a consensus on a definition. The basic concept allows companies and developers to pay as they go to rent data storage and processing power to run their applications, as a cheap and low-hassle alternative to maintaining their own servers. But I was wrong. My conclusion for now: cloud computing is really a term that’s so nebulous, it has become meaningless.

But back to Ballmer’s talk. I’ve always been struck by how much the Detroit native talks like a regular guy. Booming voice, yes; tough businessman, of course; but dressed in a red polo sweater and khakis and extolling the virtues of Internet computing and services, he really seemed to be enjoying himself up there.

Some low-level Kremlinology: I wondered if what Ballmer didn’t say would be more telling than what he did. Regarding competitors, he did mention Google at least twice. He also mentioned Amazon’s Kindle software (but not Amazon Web Services), and even Apple and Research in Motion (BlackBerry) once each. On the other hand, there was no mention of VMware, IBM, or Nokia. Also, Microsoft chief software architect Ray Ozzie (the original champion of Azure) was present, but didn’t speak.

Here are my immediate reactions to Ballmer’s talk:

He called the cloud—which I take to mean the modern Internet ecosystem—“the gift that will keep on giving.” He also emphasized, “The inspiration for what we’re doing now starts with the cloud. Windows Azure and SQL Azure start with the cloud as their design point…This is the bet, if you will, for our company.” He laid out pretty much the company’s entire strategy in terms of the cloud—in mobile, search, entertainment, devices, professional software, servers, and social networking.

This is a radical shift from the company’s outward thinking just five or six years ago, … Next Page »

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