Ballmer on the Cloud: Throw Out All the World's Software?

Kicking things off with the proclamation “We’re betting the company on it,” Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer discussed his vision of cloud computing at the University of Washington this morning. He described a rapidly changing technology ecosystem in which the cloud is causing large shifts in server and storage technologies, as well as user behavior, and creating the necessity to although he emphasized that “the goal can’t be to throw out all the world’s software and start again.”

Microsoft’s chief software architect, Ray Ozzie, seen in the picture below, was in the audience for the address, and Ballmer said that a memo from Ozzie about five years ago was the beginning of the cloud-based product and research work that Microsoft is doing. Prior to his stint at Microsoft, Ozzie was best known for his work on Lotus Notes, collaborative online workgroup applications and other early software projects that were precursors to today’s online hosted applications. Ballmer’s speech was less about specific services, such as Azure, than it was about how the cloud is influencing numerous Microsoft projects and products.

One of the centerpieces of the address was a demonstration of the new mapping features available through Microsoft’s Bing search engine, which are quite advanced. You can experiment with them by clicking on “Map Apps” here. The demonstration included zooming from aerial photo views of Washington state through combined photo-based and 3D-based virtual tours of specific neighborhoods. Ballmer punctuated the mapping demonstration with references to how coming advances in machine learning will make the cloud much smarter than it is today. “We’ve got to open this idea of learning done in the cloud up to people with innovative ideas, including many¬† scientists,” Ballmer said.

Ballmer’s address also included extensive demonstrations of how Xbox Live will integrate with cloud-based applications and services. The demonstrations included streaming TV applications from around the world, and Ballmer said that the Xbox Live-based cloud experience will become richer when Microsoft ships the upcoming Project Natal, a camera that can recognize gestures and lets users communicate online via gestures.

Ballmer made numerous references to software and hardware problems that must be solved before cloud computing can advance in truly meaningful ways. “There are latencey problems,” he said, “and many software problems.” On the hardware side, he said that server technology is in the middle of a renaissance where it is driving cloud advancements and the cloud is, in turn, changing servers. He said that cloud-based “scale issues” will continue to change how servers and software for them are built for years to come.

He also said that “the cloud wants smarter devices,” and that everything from sensors to VoIP technology have to rapidly advance in order to keep up with demand for cloud applications. “Five years from now, the cloud will mean that phones don’t look like they do now,” he noted.

While he was adamant that tech platforms need to improve before cloud computing realizes its full promise, Ballmer said that it is already ushering in “a new class of creators” and new kinds of responsibilities, notably privacy-centric¬†ones. Microsoft is involved with various research projects in these areas, and the company has a blog post up describing these efforts.

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