Apple may be that kid who never learned to share, but Microsoft over the years hasn't been much better. While the company has long had a healthy partner ecosystem, if you really wanted tight integration with one of Microsoft's products, you pretty much had to work in Redmond. Microsoft Office worked seamlessly with Microsoft Windows worked seamlessly with Microsoft SQL Server worked seamlessly with Microsoft Sharepoint worked seamlessly with... you get the picture.
Of late, however, Microsoft's underdog status in key markets has made it more amenable to a truly open partner ecosystem, perhaps best exemplified by its open arms to open source.
Nowhere is this more evident than with Windows Azure.
While the old world of Azure looked much like the image above, with Microsoft technology as far as the eye could see, the new Azure looks much different. For one thing, much of the best technology being served up on Azure wasn't written by Microsoft. Really! I'm not joking.
For example, in partnership with Hortonworks, Microsoft has released its first public preview of Windows Azure HDInsight Service, Microsoft's cloud-based distribution of Hadoop, the popular open-source Big Data processing tool. Another example of Microsoft's classic embrace and extend strategy? Nope. This time around, Microsoft promises that HDInsight will be "100% Apache Hadoop compatible now and in the future."
But Hadoop isn't the only open-source technology included by the Azure team.
More than Just Hadoop
In the olden days, Microsoft would have put all its engineering into supporting its own technologies on a first-class basis. Others might try to catch the Microsoft train, but they'd reverse engineer their way onto the back of the caboose, with just a slight API tweak away from incompatibility. Now it's Microsoft Azure that is adding support for Android, not to mention PhoneGap. All of which follows the Azure team's long-time support for Drupal, various open-source databases, Linux virtual machines, and a range of other open-source software.
"Of course Microsoft supports open-source software on Azure because it's a platform," you argue, "and so Microsoft must support third-party technology as a platform provider."
But that "of course" was lost on Microsoft for years. Through a personal agreement between Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, Microsoft Office came to Mac OS X, but it still hasn't touched Linux. Same with SQL Server. You can get the popular database to run on Linux, but not as a first-class citizen. That's reserved for Windows.
Windows Azure's Open Community
Beyond directly supporting open-source software on Azure, Microsoft has also opened up its Windows Azure Community Portal to make it easy for partners to add third-party services to Azure, both open and closed. This is a big deal for SMBs and departments within enterprises that have traditionally been Microsoft's mainstay, as BitNami founder and CTO Daniel Lopez told me:
"For customers who are looking to the cloud to run department or workgroup level apps... and who are already customers of Microsoft, the transition to Azure may be simpler and more cost-effective than moving to Amazon.
"Microsoft has traditionally dominated the SMB market. As SMBs move to the cloud, SaaS cannot meet their customization needs. They need to run their own apps - they just don't want the hassle of running their own servers. Nobody has figured out the 'Application layer' in the cloud yet, but Microsoft is actually in a better starting position than its competitors (Amazon, Google) because it already has a huge installed based and an ecosystem of partners."
Microsoft, in other words, finally groks "open." In part Microsoft shows this by embracing leading open-source technology like Hadoop or Android, but it's just as clear by its willingness to let partners embrace and extend Azure with other offerings. Yes, Microsoft has long done this with Windows, but it was never a level playing field for some kinds of technology, like open source.
Which is not to say Microsoft has won the public cloud. Today that distinction clearly goes to Amazon Web Services. But while AWS is sexy with the Silicon Valley set, the horde of SMBs and enterprises that have traditionally gone with Microsoft will be looking closely at Azure. Microsoft remains the CIO's top vendor, according to a Piper Jaffray survey. By embracing open source, it stands a chance of being the enterprise developer's top vendor, too.