Microsoft Azure

Remember when all things were Microsoft? The company was a monopoly and a ruthless one at that. How many companies did Microsoft drive into bankruptcy, gobble up, or render their software irrelevant: Netscape. Real Media. IBM’s OS/2. Lotus. American Off-Line. Sybase. Hotmail.

Americans have frowned on monopolies since John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil bullied their way to control over 99% of the market for gasoline, bringing to mind the saying: “Behind every great fortune, there is a great crime.”

The US government tried to break up Microsoft monopoly, so did the European Union. The antitrust litigation lasted so many years that the inevitability of alternatives, specifically Google, rendered the Microsoft monopoly moot and the governments dropped their cases.

Capitol Hill held hearings. The attorney for Microsoft spoke up to defend his company as an upright corporate citizen and innovator that was playing on a level playing field. An incredulous Senator asked people sitting in the hearing room who used Microsoft Windows to raise their hand. Every hand in the room shot up, except for the few people who still used typewriters. The senator said, “That, Sir, is what we call a monopoly.”

The history of computing demonstrates a tendency toward serial hegemony or monopoly. First it was IBM which rendered Tandem, Wang, NCR, and DEC all others to niche players. Reel-to-reel tapes and punch cards were inferior to Wang’s removable disk drives, but Wang’s marketing was no match for Big Blue’s army of salesmen, all clad in matching white shirts and dark ties and suits.

Then came Microsoft. IBM gave this upstart company the keys to corporate IT when they adopted MS DOS as the operating system for their $5,000 IBM-XT twin-floppy-disk PCs. IBM later tried to gain back some footprint in the market with its own PC operating system: OS/2, an idea which fell flat.

Now we have Google and Android, which have relegated Microsoft Windows to the data center and the desktop of the 9-to-5 office worker who still needs a keyboard. Google shoved aside Yahoo and Microsoft search engines. Now the Android operating system threatens to take over the market for smartphones. Apple iPhones and Mac computers have a dedicated following, but what will Apple come up with after the iPhone 5? Wall Street is skeptical they can still do what the late Steve Jobs did best and be “insanely great” forever. As for Microsoft, do you know anyone with a Windows phone? Donate them to a museum so we can remember that what once dominated becomes a relic of history. Have you shopped for any apps lately in the Windows 8 marketplace? There are few. Worse, many vendors there want you to pay for them. What a concept!

Still, Microsoft has gained a loyal following among programmers and those who run data centers. Some 50% of corporate systems use Windows. Visual Basic is a truly remarkable programming language, mainly because of its ease of use and long life. It has evolved along with C# into .Net with millions of programmers trained in the framework. Visual Studio is a good development environment with solid code assist, deploying, and debugging features.

Now we have the cloud, with lots of competitors. Amazon AWS has not obtained a lock on the market is not likely to do so. Because they have so many customers and because their enterprise systems work and work well, Microsoft’s cloud offering, Windows Azure, is certain to sign up many customers and keep them for the long term. Thinking clearly and being pragmatic, the company has dropped its all-Microsoft posture at least to some degree. Azure supports the open source tools Linux and even Apache Hadoop.

Are there issues with vendor lock and Windows Azure? Maybe. Azure relies on Active Directory for authentication, but as an LDAP tool its data could be ported to Oracle’s (Sun) LDAP if needed. Pushing their own tools, Microsoft promotes Azure as a way to use BizTalk, SharePoint, and SQL server in the cloud.

Microsoft has taken the best ideas from the Java ecosystem and included them in Azure. Following the Amazon AWS example, you can interact with data and applications using REST web services, which is a technique for programming web services that is much simpler than its predecessor SOAP. REST uses the same protocol as web pages (HTTP) meaning a smartphone app can use them to access data. This gets rid of the need to figure out how to do a JNDI lookup over the public internet.

Reacting to the Big Data phenomenon, Azure offers Windows Azure Tables, which is a NoSQL database similar to MongoDB. In a quest for compatibility, Azure supports Apache Hadoop and thus Big Data.

Windows programmers will make the transition to Azure fairly easily and it is sure to find support among IT executives. Not to lose all those programmers and development shops devoted to Java, Azure also supports Tomcat and Eclipse.

Nature abhors a vacuum. In the end, despite the best efforts of technology vendors, markets abhor a monopoly.