Windows 10 and the mystery of the missing cloud

Azure, one of the strongest cards in Microsoft's hand, was absent from the Windows 10 preview event

When Windows 8 was first previewed to developers during Microsoft's first preview event for that operating system in September 2011, one of the system's most indispensable sources of functionality was said to be the cloud -- specifically, the cloud service known at that time as Windows Azure.

The cloud would be the connector of our lives, company officials said, and both Azure and Windows 8 were part of an inseparable platform that made these connections feasible.

Today, Microsoft is a significantly stronger player in cloud services than it was in 2011. Competing very effectively against Amazon and Google, Microsoft provides virtual machine hosting, virtual desktops, and a sophisticated platform-as-a-service, all of which no longer bind customers to using Windows-oriented technologies. Docker, one of the most advanced systems yet devised for readily deploying server applications in the cloud, was adopted right away.

While Azure is a number-three player, it's not number-three the way Windows Phone is number-three.

Yet Azure was absent from Wednesday's Windows 10 preview event. It's one of the strongest cards in Microsoft's hand, and its executives declined to show it.

As a result, any discussion of the role that increased bandwidth and cloud-based services could play in the next Windows, was shuffled to the back burner. Whether a new class of services and applications could be delivered to Windows 10 consumers on a virtual basis, roaming from device to device, was largely confined to the Xbox One gaming console. There, Windows universal apps are slated to appear, and games sourced on an Xbox One console can be streamed remotely to Windows 10-based clients, all with the aid of some unnamed and unseen force.

It's not a moot issue. The key to Microsoft's ability to extend the Windows brand into the next decade is its willingness to transfer the responsibility of serving users' desktops from their local processors to remote servers.

In just the past 12 months, radical advances in server technology have made it feasible to present sophisticated programs with stunning graphics capability on remote clients that are just as stunningly unsophisticated.

Dell, with its acquisition of Wyse, has jumped into this market head-first, demonstrating late last year a virtual desktop client that can deliver real-time workstation rendering, compressed into a device the size of the average USB thumb drive. Users of devices such as these may one day soon see their functionality delivered to them by services other than Windows.

Competition for the virtual desktop space is emerging where experts aren't even looking, from companies as diverse as Box, Citrix, Amazon and Comcast.

"My sense is, today was really all about the consumer story," said TECHnalysis chief analyst Bob O'Donnell during Wednesday's Microsoft event, "and they're really going to tell more about the corporate story and other services down the road."

But the cloud wasn't all about the corporate story four years ago. Still, O'Donnell believes, while the story of Azure is about services that don't require an app, and that can bridge platforms through a common, shared connection, Wednesday's event was supposed to be about bridging the "app gap."

Otherwise, if Azure had been the focus, "you subvert the whole conversation. It doesn't have to be about how many apps you have. Instead, it's about what services are available across which devices... My sense is, they're going to play those cards later. Right now, they're playing the big-picture, obvious [topics], which are around the basic feature capabilities [of Windows 10]," he added.

In deference to Microsoft's slight-of-hand, the disappearing cloud was not missed much Wednesday. Since it wasn't a topic of conversation, that fact in and of itself was not discussed, at least among attendees and company officials.

The next big discussion of Windows 10's strategic direction, however, is a developer conference: Build 2015, in San Francisco on April 29. Attendees there will be Azure subscribers. If Microsoft doesn't bring up the cloud by April, that omission may become bigger than any app gap we've ever seen.

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Scott M. Fulton, III

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