Microsoft airs strategy for 'cloud computing'

Microsoft msft on Monday unveiled a sharpened strategy to tap into "cloud computing," an emerging market for computing power supplied as a service.

At a Los Angeles tech conference sponsored by Microsoft, chief software architect Ray Ozzie outlined a broad strategy for competing against Amazon, IBM and others in supplying data crunching and data storage to businesses under a campaign dubbed Windows Azure.

Microsoft will open a $250 million data center in Chicago to support Azure. And it's letting software developers test tools and services designed to jump-start Azure. The long-term goal is to entice businesses to use Microsoft products accessed over the Internet, running on rented computer servers supplied and maintained by Microsoft. "It's a transformation of our software. It's a transformation of our strategy," Ozzie said.

He emphasized that Windows Azure will change as more people kick the tires through 2009.

He did not say when Microsoft will start selling access to Azure or how much it will cost.

Microsoft continues to make most of its profits from selling licenses to use its Windows computer operating system and Office suite of clerical programs.

Ozzie's remarks indicated that after years of experimentation, Microsoft now has a clear plan to respond to the shift from costly desktop programs to more lightweight, inexpensive ones that run over the Internet.

From the perspective of an average computer user, Ozzie said in an Associated Press interview, Azure is another step toward solving the modern headache of accessing files from many different devices — for instance, home, work and portable computers.

Ray Valdes, an analyst at researcher Gartner, said that Microsoft's Web services strategy still isn't cohesive. It's "taking every major asset of intellectual property, and cloud-enabling it to some degree," he said.

Web start-ups have flocked to Amazon Web Services, but few big corporations have taken the plunge. Azure is "a defensive maneuver," Valdes said.

Monday's announcement was aimed at programmers who wanted to know that their software skills will be relevant as Microsoft shifts into this new phase.

Today, the company is set to discuss changes for average PC users, with top Office and Windows executives scheduled to speak.