Microsoft offers cloud computing a hearty handclasp

Microsoft and Ray Ozzie cracked the door half open this morning on Windows Azure, the infrastructure formerly known as Windows Cloud. In the process, Ozzie served notice that IT will remain in the Windows/Office grip but with an abstraction layer that blurs the on-premise and on-demand worlds.

The outlines of Live Mesh’s role as arbiter of this abstraction were there to be inferred, but the details of how the Azure service bus arbitrates things like federated identity, workflow services, and overall services management will be left to Tuesday’s keynote. But the leisure with which Ozzie and his lieutenants roll out the announcements belies the speed with which Microsoft is executing this corner turn.

It’s called a community technology preview as a nod to the coveted developer crowd, with code distributed along with a freeze on cost that will likely last well into 2009. While that’s standard operating procedure for most platforms in this beta-is-rtm world, the inclusion of Dynamics CRM apps hosted in the cloud is at a minimum a shot across Salesforce’s bow.

A smidgen of Silverlight messaging glinted around the edges of the demos – colorful graphics and a cloud data-based auto-generated chart that popped up on Sharepoint Online. Where once Office Online seemed a pathetic attempt to escape the Office political vortex, now it’s starting to look more like an aggressive strategy to lock IT in and let IT manage users. The bet appears to be that offloading enough infrastructure costs from the enterprise will let Microsoft siphon services revenue as a condition of rapid transformation to more efficient cloud services.

We’ll need to wait for more details to decide how competitive the cloud play is, but Ozzie telegraphed one potential outcome when he thanked Amazon for pioneering the space with its cloud offerings. It certainly was sincere, but there was no mistaking the virtual gold watch, the famous proffered hearty handclasp, and the well-oiled “We’ll take it from here.”