Ballmer Spells Out Microsoft's View Of Cloud

Microsoft has been busily building out the data center infrastructure to support its cloud computing initiatives, but hasn't spent as much time on cloud messaging. But now, we're starting to get a sense of where the software giant's priorities lie in the cloud.

In a Thursday speech at the University of Washington in the Paul G. Allen Center for Computer Science & Engineering, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer outlined a set of principles he sees governing his company's current and future work around cloud computing.

One of these principles is that cloud computing requires smarter devices. For Microsoft, which prides itself on being a software company, this will entail a shift in focus, but Ballmer suggested that this won't be a wholesale shift. "That's not to say that we won't continue working on browsers and standards, but in the cloud, the devices you use matter," Ballmer said.

Ballmer said the forthcoming launch of Project Natal, which he described as a "camera that comes with the Xbox and recognizes you and your voice and gestures," shows that Microsoft hasn't ignored the importance of hardware. "The hardware does matter," Ballmer said. "PCs now don't looks like PCs five years ago, and the cloud has a lot to do with that."

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Mobile devices are also evolving with more cloud specific elements, and Windows Phone 7 includes ample evidence of this, Ballmer said. "Windows is the most popular smart device on the planet, and the goal is to make it smarter and cloud equipped," he said. "Windows Phone 7 is a smarter device that's designed for the cloud."

Another of Microsoft's cloud principles is that server must be completely overhauled for the cloud and been infused with the ability to scale up or down as resources needs fluctuate. Virtualization can help provide software with more agility, but the needs of the cloud go beyond what it can offer on its own.

"The cloud is changing the way we think about server hardware and software," Ballmer said.

The cloud is also continually learning, gathering new data and funneling that into the improvement of the products that connect to the cloud, Ballmer said. "The cloud needs to learn about you and it needs to keep learning and figuring things out about the world virtually," Ballmer said.

Machine learning, which is quickly developing into one of the hottest areas of computer science, lets researchers gain meaning from information and understand intent, and that can make search engines more effective shopping tools, Ballmer said.

"This notion of learning and helping me decide to take action is a very big idea, and it's not just the province of a few big companies' work in research labs," Ballmer said. "The cloud needs to learn, and to collect new data and get smarter and better so it can help me learn."

Microsoft's latest version of Bing Maps is an example of how this learning is improving the quality of search using cloud based intelligence. Like Google, Microsoft is in the process of mapping imagery down to mind boggling levels of granularity, and it's augmenting its own images with Creative Commons images from Flickr that are geo-tagged.

By binding Flickr images with its own and extending that through 3D modeling, Bing Maps can offer an experience that Microsoft sees as competitively differentiated from Google Maps.

Blaise Aguera y Arcas, architect of Bing Maps at Microsoft and co-creator of Photosynth, joined Ballmer onstage to show off new Bing Maps features like Local Lens, which pinpoints map locations that are referenced in local blogs; and What's Nearby, which explores a region in space and provides information and ratings about all the businesses nearby.

Microsoft's approach is unique in that it binds together the semantic information of the ratings, the blog information, and imagery information, according to Aguera y Arcas. "This spatial incantation of the cloud is learning in a variety of ways from content from users," he said.

Microsoft has been watching other vendors zealously stake their claims in the cloud, but the set of principles Ballmer outlined show that the watching phase may be nearing an end.