Microsoft's Satya Nadella puts the cloud front and center

While the buzz centers on Office for the iPad, the real message in Satya Nadella's coming-out party was the transformation of Microsoft to a cloud behemoth

From the start, the change in tone was striking. For Satya Nadella's first big dog-and-pony show, 52 days into his tenure as CEO, he did what his predecessor Steve Ballmer seemed constitutionally unable to do: Declare unequivocally that cloud and mobile were first, not just for Microsoft platforms, but across every device.

Nadella backed up that statement with the big news of the day: Microsoft's release of Office for the iPad. But he also posed a question about his own declaration: How can both cloud and mobile be first?

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Microsoft Office general manager Julia White provided the de facto answer by noting that customers would need an Office 365 subscription in order to obtain a fully functional version of Office for the iPad. She also returned again and again to OneDrive cloud storage, demonstrating how PowerPoint changes saved to OneDrive could be opened across devices. Last but not least, the new Microsoft Enterprise Mobility Suite will center on Azure Active Directory Premium for cloud-based identity and access management -- plus, single sign-on for more than 1,000 SaaS applications.

As Nadella said, "a device not connected to the cloud is useless." True, Office for iPad also acknowledges that a crummy Web approximation of Office for mobile platforms is also pretty much useless -- the iPad native version of Office, at long last, is the real deal. But the fact is it's just one endpoint in an Office 365 and Azure ecosystem, with OneDrive as the data store, Office 365 as the native software distribution point, and Azure as the user/device control point.

Ever since we heard the first rumblings that Windows 8 would provide a unified experience across devices, we've anticipated that Microsoft would go cloud first, since it had all the pieces -- Azure, Office 365, and even the Dynamics apps, which are supported on Azure infrastructure -- to make that notion a reality. Yes, Windows 8 turned out to be a disaster, but ultimately it may be a footnote. Nadella's big debut today could well mark the beginning of a new Microsoft era where the company pulls together its many assets into a coherent whole to deliver a complete, unified, compelling experience from the cloud. Windows is still important (and as Nadella noted, at next week's Build conference, big Windows news will be forthcoming), but in another sense, Windows machines represent just another type of endpoint.

Even the Enterprise Mobility Suite single-sign-on function that supports a slew of non-Microsoft SaaS apps indicates a new openness. That attitude has already been brewing on Azure, which started as a .Net-centric PaaS play but has evolved to support Java, Ruby, Python, PHP, and Node.js. Along with Windows Server, Azure offers Linux, MySQL, Hadoop, NoSQL databases, and more. Add the complete Microsoft portfolio of Office and Dynamics applications and a newfound commitment to support all platforms, and you have a cloud juggernaut.

Execution is always a question with Microsoft. Yes, Office on the iPad is a very good sign, but we'll have to see how Microsoft pulls it all together. Meanwhile, Nadella gets full credit for articulating a compelling new direction. It will be fascinating to see how the company follows through on that cloud vision in the coming months.

This article, "Microsoft's Satya Nadella puts the cloud front and center," originally appeared at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Eric Knorr's Modernizing IT blog. And for the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld on Twitter.

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