I recall being involved in a discussion by then-executive Steve Ballmer and another executive who left the company shortly thereafter on services. The other executive argued that Microsoft needed to go into the services market and Ballmer said absolutely not because the firm didn’t want to piss off the independent service companies.
Well, a few acquisitions and the emergence of “the cloud” later and the “independent” service companies are mostly captured and owned now and this same guy, Steve Ballmer, has changed his mind and made services, granted cloud services, and Azure one of Microsoft’s strongest offerings. Most CEOs would have stuck to their guns, figuring that making a move like this would make them look kind of stupid, but Ballmer gets that you have to change the company with the times and Azure is one of the strongest examples in Microsoft of this change.
This doesn’t come without some pain because Amazon has emerged as the real power in services in the U.S., and it doesn’t have a ton of ex-Microsoft folks driving that effort, so Microsoft with this announcement is stepping up its competitive efforts, vowing to match Amazon dollar for dollar and price for price. This is good because I generally hear from IT execs that they are upset about line employees using Amazon services without proper authorization. In other words, Amazon for many is a problem and Azure could be the solution.
But folks want and need references, so as part of the release briefing I asked that Microsoft send me some implementations. I have no real desire to regurgitate marketing collateral and feel strongly that the customers are the real test of a product.
One of the most interesting is Toyota (because I’m kind of a car guy) and because Toyota is really thinking out of the box with its Azure effort. It is using it as the backend for its in-car telematics initiative. This means in-car communications, GPS and information systems like those that tell the company if the car needs to come in for service or collectively lets the company know when they may need to do a recall.
This was driven by Toyota’s electric and hybrid car efforts, which needed this extra help to better manage energy and address battery anxiety. And Toyota is believed to have the best electric car on the road today, the Prius, as a result of these efforts, including being able to monitor and control charging to make the best use of tiered energy programs, and concerns surrounding power outages or power station failures.
Digital Air Strike
OK, I just love the company name but it is also car-related, set up to provide real-time feedback on car purchases and service transactions. This helps car companies determine the effectiveness of sales and service programs and identify problems that need a corporate fix.
But the related analytics likely help the dealers assure adequate staffing and training and customers come back when they need a new car. I know that after bad service experiences at Mercedes I stopped buying that brand and I’ve changed Infiniti dealers because of a bad service experience. I tend to buy cars regularly and if I’m like others, both dealerships have likely lost a ton of money because they don’t have the information Digital Air Strike may be able to provide from the cloud. This company works with GM and Kia.
This is just out of the box a fantastic use of a cloud resource. 3M invented Visual Attention Service and it is hosting it on Azure. This allows marketers to upload collateral for websites and then it measures the effectiveness of the asset based on eye-tracking technology, showcasing how the asset will be viewed and provides an estimate of how effective and valuable it may be. This helps refine these assets, creating better advertising campaigns, providing a stronger return on the related marketing budgets in terms of buyer interest and potential demand generation. Thanks to Azure, according to 3M, it is able to provide a powerful new service at an amazingly low price.
Radio Shack went in the exact opposite direction to use Azure to host a large number of legacy systems, which provided in-store inventory, coupon management and a way for customers to track product availability online. The old on-premise solutions were slow and relatively unavailable. Azure hosting made the result far faster. Given the nature of the solution should reduce shrinkage, improve inventory management and increase customer satisfaction, I’d expect the return on investment for this solution to be pretty impressive as well.
What can I say? I’m a Harry Potter fan and couldn’t miss this one. This is powering the site being used to manage the massive number of Harry Potter fans. Now if someone would only write another Potter book — he’ll have kids, right? Back on topic, interest in this series likely has waves based on fan events and movie re-releases, which requires a high degree of flexibility.
Azure needs to step up the competition that Amazon is providing, but the firm has far more experience providing services than Amazon should. At price parity it should be preferred and Amazon should be outmatched; neither are yet, but I think that is largely due to the fact that Amazon had been aggressively working this area longer and Microsoft has been under-marketing its successes.
If this launch fixes that, then Azure will continue to strengthen and should pass Amazon at some future point; in any case, Azure remains a potentially stronger alternative to Amazon and worth consideration and the captured testimonials of these customers showcase that the service is performing above expectations, because this aspect, has been in trial until today.
Azure is even the backend for one of my favorite multiplayer games, Halo 4 (it’d better be given Halo was the launch title for the Xbox). It’s a good start. We’ll revisit this in a year to see if Microsoft is kicking some Amazon butt.