The intersection of social media and the cloud

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The competition for the next wave of enterprise computing has heated up since Microsoft announced its Windows Azure strategy a month ago. While the jury is out in some quarters about Microsoft’s ability to actually deliver the reliability, security, and even the interoperability that is promised, the timetable has accelerated the plans of competitors and forced some to define themselves in terms of the cloud at a dangerous moment.

Sun Microsystems has been under particular pressure to realign; analysts and even Sun employees such as Tim Bray have been outspoken in their pleas for Sun’s executive team to jettison unprofitable ventures in favor of some kind of cloud strategy. CEO Jonathan Schwartz has hinted in recent months of some wood behind what Sun calls its Grid effort, and will this week roll out Sun’s JavaFX 1.0 front end technology to compete with Flash/Air and Silverlight.

JavaFX could be one of the casualties if Sun decides to pare technologies along with the 18% of its employees it’s trimming. Other cuts might include the NetBeans development environment, which has kept pace with or even bettered Eclipse in quality but not in uptake, and OpenOffice, the free Office replacement. Unfortunately for Sun, Google Docs has stolen some of the strategic thunder with an on-demand product from a company that can afford it.

Google is feeling some pressure as well, as its odd messaging around a Gmail Video chat plug-in reveals. Though the company has made a big deal about only supporting open Web technologies, they have much less to say about the use of proprietary technologies in the video plug-in. Coming at the same time that CEO Eric Schmidt attacks Azure as a way “to gain enough share in cloud computing to force other people to use its standards,” the use of Flash and the reluctance to answer direct questions about it seem disingenuous, something Google has steered clear of as it builds out its own standards such as Chrome and Android.

Schmidt’s attack also suggests that Google has assessed Microsoft’s cloud effort and found it substantial enough to warrant a political rather than technical challenge. Yet the video plug-in also implies an attempt to improve the “rich” aspects of its Ajax framework as online versions of Office reach beta in the next year. Ironically, Microsoft’s Live Mesh/Silverlight combo will work on Windows, Mac, and Linux (via Novell’s Moonlight port), while no Linux plug-in has been announced for the video code.

Apple’s cloudish efforts may get a boost when the company releases its Push notification technology, allowing a rumored over the air MobileMe synchup with Notes. Not only would that bring in the rest of the enterprise email world, it would also deliver the necessary infrastructure for iPhone developers to release useful micromessaging clients. Qik.com’s new support for transcoded iPhone-compatible versions of Qik videos would fit nicely in such clients, bypassing Flash and Silverlight in the process and blunting pressure from Android. Without Google’s Web religion and with a burgeoning revenue model, Apple can afford to move to the cloud at its own pace.

At a time when startups are tamped down to survival mode, the cloud seems the province of the wealthy. By betting early and building just ahead of the startup market, Amazon has joined the gorillas at the table. Sun remains a player if only because the various acquisition or breakup scenarios seem more unlikely. And Jonathan Schwartz’ ability to dance with Microsoft when he needs it may come in handy as Azure nears the marketplace. Somebody will provide the big freaking Webtone switch for these cloud data centers, and storage is the new black.

Google and Microsoft are alone at the top of the pyramid. The usual caveats don’t hold much water when looked at objectively. For a company pigeon-holed as making it up as they go along with no cross team coordination, the Google desktop is an organic work in progress with new components and management tools emerging week by week. Building out via XMPP from the Gmail hub is allowing users to orchestrate realtime services into a consumable stream and reliable archives available cross-client.

The rogue video plug-in may violate Google’s messaging, but the first time you nail up a video chat with someone on a PC from your Mac, you’ll know something substantial has occurred. In a world where the console real estate is measured in pixels, I’m still running Skype as a legacy app but switching whenever I see the telltale camera icon in Gchat. With calendar, docs, mail, XMPP, video, and audio all on one screen, the momentum is considerable.

For its part, Microsoft is no longer at war with itself. That may have been the only way to manage the company in the face of no opposition, but for the first time Redmond is competing more with Google and to a lesser extent, Amazon, than between versions of Windows or Office. The Google console may lack persistence and offline aspects, but the video plug-in signals a much more pragmatic approach than many have expected. By the same token, Microsoft is far less encumbered with its response to Google’s attack than we thought before Azure was revealed.

That’s because users don’t perceive Microsoft as the dominant force in computing any more. When I open Gmail, I’m conditioned to expect the latest addition. The more time I spend in the realtime world, the more I look to solutions that will fit into the environment I have chosen. When micromessaging proves too fragmented for XMPP, I add the Twhirl Air client to present a more alert-driven version of the various feeds. In other words, my usage reaches a point where more professional tools are necessary, and I integrate RIA capabilities to finesse the transition.

But what happens next? For now, it’s unlikely I’ll switch off the Gmail desktop. There’s no competitive Ajax client, but I have no special allegiance to Air should a more robust Silverlight client emerge. My iPhone could care less where the back end lives that synchs via the new Push notification engine, so I can choose between Mesh and whatever Google releases to compete with XMPP on the desktop. Google has to compete not only with Microsoft but Apple in that arena; I’d love to integrate GCal and missing features of Gmail on the iPhone, but not until Push is released will it happen, and perhaps not quickly even then.

Micromessaging is not the only area where Microsoft can make inroads, but it’s easily the most significant because of the requirement for open standards. Even though those are still unsettled, Microsoft has carefully mandated open access to its platform and has no wiggle room out of that contract given its Borg baggage. Interestingly, Google has opened a hole into the Gmail console with the ability to add widgets. Imagine Office Online docs available on the Gmail console, or a Twitter feed that interleaves docs and appointments from both stores.

The intersection of social media and the cloud will drive most of this strategic realignment. The argument that cloud computing will fail because we won’t trust our bits outside our direct control ignores two truths: the economics outweigh the potential liabilities, and we have no idea where our data is in any case. The more valuable our cloud data becomes, the less likely we will be to complain about unauthorized access. The more social graph data is baked into these information sharing transactions, the more valuable the shared data will become.

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