Microsoft Launches Windows Azure Mobile Services: A Cloud Backend For Windows 8 And Mobile Apps

Microsoft announced this morning the addition of a new capability for Windows Azure today called Windows Azure Mobile Services. This will allow developers to add a cloud backend to their Windows 8 application for now, but support for mobile platforms including Windows Phone, iOS and Android is in development, the company says. Using the platform, developers can store data in the cloud, authenticate users, and send out push notifications to clients.

Like other backend-as-a-service solutions, the idea with Windows Azure Mobile Services is to help speed time to market by allowing developers to focus on the front end, while incorporating the service on the backend for common, but essential, tasks related to development. This puts Windows Azure in competition with other backend-as-a-service providers, like Parse, Kinvey and Urban Airship, for example, although not immediately due to the lack of support for anything but Windows 8 at the time of launch. Details on when the service would be available to non-Microsoft platforms were not immediately available.

After setup, the data is stored in the Windows Azure cloud, and is associated with a SQL database inside Azure. Then the remote apps can securely retrieve that data without the developer needing to write or deploy custom code (it uses REST endpoints and a JSON-based ODATA format, says Microsoft). Support for creating tables, browsing data, setting indexes and controlling access are also available. In addition, developers can integrate user authentication into their applications and send out push notifications to clients – both of which are typical functions offered by today’s backend-as-a-service providers.

Also like other providers and Windows Azure proper, Mobile Services includes an analytics function that allows developers to monitor usage and other metrics related to their app. This is available in a dashboard-like interface which allows for easy visualization of the data on hand.

In order to develop using the Azure Mobile Services platform, developers have to download Visual Studio 2012 Express and the Mobile Services Managed SDK. Then, they are walked through a quick set up guide that, for now, is designed for connected the cloud to the Windows 8 application.

Azure Mobile Services is currently being offered as a “Preview,” and requires developers to sign up for a free trial of Windows Azure, then request to enroll in this feature. During the trial, Mobile Services are free for the first ten Windows 8 applications running on shared instances.

Over on ZDNet, longtime Microsoft watcher Mary Jo Foley points out that this is not Microsoft’s first attempt to woo the mobile development community to try Azure. In spring 2011, the company introduced an Azure toolkit for iOS, and also has made available a similar one for Android as well as Windows Phone, of course. It’s unclear if Mobile Services are to complement or replace these older toolkits, she notes. Our guess is for the latter, though – the toolkits are on GitHub and likely won’t be pulled down, but it makes sense that Microsoft would now try to move developers over to this more formalized effort around Azure services.

Update: some more details from Microsoft are below.

– There is not a confirmed date on the iOS/Android/WP launch timeframe yet.
– This does replace the toolkits. Says a spokesperson: “The Windows Azure mobile toolkits were the first iteration of support for the Mobile + Cloud scenario. We have incorporated the learnings and feedback from those efforts into Windows Azure Mobile Services. Future improvements will be channeled into Windows Azure Mobile Services rather than the original mobile toolkits.”
– The toolkits will remain on GitHub.