TechEd watchers expect Windows Phone 7 news, Microsoft Azure details

Mobile momentum is Microsoft's to lose. With Windows Phone 7, Microsoft is making a risky bid to win a big piece of the mobile market. But its mobile news, if there is any, won't be able to escape comparison to Apple's expected news around the iPhone OS 4.0 release and possibly a fourth-generation iPhone handset. To sustain the positive buzz around Windows Phone 7, Microsoft needs to keep courting developers, who so far have been working with early versions of both the operating system and development tools. On their wish lists are real handsets that meet the Windows Phone 7 hardware specification and beta versions of the operating system itself.

There are any number of Microsoft Azure cloud topics Microsoft could address at TechEd, from its struggle to wrench momentum away from Google Apps, to security of the cloud, and licensing the use of Windows in cloud services. But Microsoft's strategy around Azure seems to be less well-defined than its other cloud ventures, and therefore may receive a bigger focus at TechEd, analysts say. "I expect them to make a major move" regarding Azure, says Burton Group analyst Drue Reeves, who believes Microsoft has to walk a fine line with Microsoft Azure, which delivers a cloud-based operating system, relational database and several other services. Microsoft Azure potentially poses a conflict of interest for Microsoft, he says. Microsoft wants partners to use the Hyper-V virtualization technology and .Net framework to build cloud services, but the market presence of Azure might dissuade cloud providers from using those Microsoft technologies, Reeves says.

"If you're a new provider, are you going to use Hyper-V, or are you going to use .Net and offer that as a service and compete with Microsoft Azure? Not likely," Reeves says. Microsoft is "providing the enabling technologies for cloud providers and selling against them at the same time." Microsoft Azure exited beta and went into general availability on Feb. 1 of this year. But Microsoft has been relatively quiet overall about the cloud service.

In addition to the cloud-based operating system and SQL database, Microsoft Azure includes a content delivery network. King says he wants to know what other Microsoft Azure services will be rolled out, and what kind of interest Azure is receiving from customers so far. While most big IT vendors are focusing on enterprises and service providers, King says Microsoft may be ideally positioned to market its cloud service to small-to-midsized businesses. "Microsoft is the de-facto vendor of choice for most small businesses," King says. "I think small- and medium-sized businesses are in a position to really gain some interesting benefits from the cloud." Reeves says Microsoft Azure seems to be in flux, with Microsoft still "trying to figure out whether it's platform-as-a-service or infrastructure-as-a-service."

A Microsoft spokesperson said the TechEd event "will focus on the cloud strategy for enterprise customers and developers," without revealing other details. With a topic as broad as cloud computing, that leaves open the possibility of several areas Microsoft may choose to focus on. For example, Azure Senior Architect Hasan Alkhatib said last December that Microsoft was working on a new security structure for multi-tenant cloud environments, and private cloud software based on the same technology used in Microsoft Azure.

Meanwhile, back on the mobile front, experienced Windows application developers have had high praise for the radically redesigned user interface in Windows Phone 7, which was first unveiled in February. But without actual handsets, they've had to rely on the PC-based Windows Phone emulator to experiment with the look and feel of their mobile applications. In addition to real Windows Phone 7 handsets and beta versions of the operating system, developers are hoping TechEd yields more details about the online Windows Phone 7 Marketplace and the process of submitting and approving applications. They'd also like more information about enterprise-specific features, functions and APIs, and to learn specific target dates for new HTC and LG handsets running Windows Phone 7.

Microsoft is holding its annual TechEd conference next week in New Orleans, where industry watchers are looking for Microsoft to sustain the buzz around Windows Phone 7, as well as share details about its cloud computing strategy in general and Microsoft Azure cloud services in particular.

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