This week's BizSpark event by Microsoft at its Paris Headquarters demonstrated that there is something new, and something old about the dominant operating system vendor in the week it was overtaken by Apple as the world's largest technology company.
BizSpark is an event and initiative that enables IT start up firms to meet with Microsoft and perhaps more importantly venture capital (VC) groups. This year's event took on a BBC Dragons Den style format with niche developers from across Europe having to pitch their applications and business plans to a panel of Microsoft and VC experts in a limited time. The format was fun and put an end to tedious PowerPoint sales presentations and made the presenters rely on their wits and even humour.
The majority of start ups presenting had a cloud computing application and business model. These hopefuls, and Microsoft, are betting the house that cloud computing will grow.
Although I've written in these pages before that CIOs are not embracing cloud computing with anything like the vigour that the daily surveys would have you believe, I like many, do believe it is a technological and business model with a future. And my visit to Paris confirms this.
Amongst the applications on display were simple tools with business models that made you think, "I wish I'd thought of that". My favourite was Spain's No Excuse Accounting, a Smartphone application for invoicing. Pitched at tradesmen it allows them to keep on top of this vital business process from the one piece of IT you can't prize from a plumbers hand, the Smartphone. Coming from a family of tradesmen, I could see the business case for this instantly and it gets my backing, although not financially.
Microsoft has always supported independent software vendors and cloud computing is the new development area, replacing MS-DOS and Windows, although Microsoft may not see the Windows package being replaced just yet.
Jan Muehlfeit is Chairman Europe at Microsoft Corporation and discussed Microsoft's place in the cloud. He was upbeat and of course described Microsoft as leading cloud computing development. But he wasn't just selling the corporate message, he believes cloud computing is about to take off not because it's great technology, but because of the wider economic situation the world finds itself in. For the CIO that means moving application usage away from capital expenditure over to operating expenditure.
Muehlfeit said Microsoft is well placed to support this move with its Azure, SharePoint and LiveMeeting product lines.
"Azure is agnostic, so it can host open source if that is what a CIO wants," he says. "In today's situation I see opportunities in healthcare, government and education for cloud computing. There is a depth of feeling in the west to speed up reform; and technology though cloud computing can play a huge potential in this."
So Microsoft is/could become the major platform provider for a wide variety of applications that the systems a CIO is responsible for will have to interface with. This puts Microsoft in the position of not only being the backbone technology provider, just as Apple is with the iPhone and AppStore, but also as the guardian of good quality development for cloud technologies.
As our recent interview with the CIO of Severn Trent Water demonstrated, CIOs want to move their organisations forward, but they won't take massive gambles, especially in shareholder beholden companies. A Microsoft approved cloud application may get more approval from a CIO than a random App from anywhere.