Microsoft has made 2011 the year it really pushes its cloud services, under the banner of “Cloud Power.” Its Windows Azure platform is being used by the likes of NASA and Xerox to build a wide range of bespoke cloud applications. Office 365, due to leave beta later this year, is Microsoft's cloud based productivity suite for businesses of all sizes. Add in its Hyper-V technology for private cloud environments, and Microsoft seems to have a pretty coherent strategy for powering “the cloud.” But what about the other side of the cloud proposition -- accessing these services as consumers? What about the hardware and software end users need to get at, and make the most of, the cloud?

Lawrie Siteman, director of cloud services at Program Framework, thinks we need to pay special attention to this side of the cloud:

The infrastructure behind the cloud is vital, but it is important not to forget that how end users work with these services is all important. Getting the interface to cloud right is essential to the long term success of this new model of computing.”

Microsoft's strategy here seems to reply on three specific areas, each designed to allow the end user to penetrate the cloud in a slightly different way. They are the Windows 8 desktop operating system (recently revealed officially by Steve Ballmer), Windows Phone 7 (whose “Mango” update has just been announced), and Internet Explorer 10 (which has now been made available as a “test drive” version). Let’s look at what each means for accessing the cloud.

Windows 8

Windows 8 was officially named by Steve Ballmer at the recent Microsoft Developer Forum in Tokyo. Though still without a firm release date, the operating system has seen a number of leaks onto the Web over the last few months. These leaks have been dissected and discussed in extreme detail, and a clear cloud strategy has appeared.

Windows 8 is the first version in the operating systems history that will support “system on a chip” and ARM processors. This means the OS will likely be found on a wide number of tablet computers, slates and even smart phones. Various incarnations of Windows have been shoehorned on mobile computers in the past, but Windows 8 will be the first to be properly designed with these form factors in mind. This development reflects the PC market’s move to mobile computing, and the trend for lightweight devices connecting to cloud services. Microsoft clearly wants Windows 8 to be the platform people are using.

Secondly, Microsoft is building its “Live ID” service right into Windows. This means users will be able to log into Windows using their “Live account” (currently used for services like Hotmail or XBox Live) and sync settings and services over the Web using Microsoft’s Windows Live Cloud network. Creating “roaming profiles” like these has long been on the wish list of many Windows users, allowing them to log into any Windows PC and get their own user account and settings. But this feature could be taken much further and offer direct access to cloud services. Imagine Windows Explorer being integrated fully with Microsoft's SkyDrive online storage service.