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.

Thirdly, Microsoft has demonstrated plans for a Windows 8 “app store,” indicating its belief that application development will move further toward the Web. For many, cloud computing starts with accessing an app via an app store and interacting with services online through that app. Microsoft wants to put Windows 8 at the center of this world.

[Editor's Note: You might also be interested in reading Microsoft's 'Windows 8' Unveiled; A Whole New Windows World.]

Windows Phone 7 Mango

As more and more users carry out computing tasks on smart phones, the Windows phone variant of Microsoft's flagship product could very easily become the all important version in future years. The “Mango” update was recently unveiled and offers a number of new cloud integration features and functions, including full integration with SkyDrive and Office 365.

SkyDrive brings photos and Office documents together in one place, through a new HTML5 interface. Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents are now fully supported, and PDFs will be accessible from the Office hub. Improved Office 365 support includes the ability to enter your Office 365 details and have your phone setup and configure email, contacts, calendars, and team site in one go. You can open, edit and comment on Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents, and see the same versions you would expect to see on your PC. A new dedicated Lync mobile app, which will work with Lync online or a dedicated Lync server, is also included.

Internet Explorer 9 will also be included in Mango, bringing support for HTML5 apps and services to Windows phones. IE9 will also make use of the more powerful graphics hardware in mobile devices to enhance the performance and usability of mobile apps, as it is basically a full version of its desktop cousin.

Learning Opportunities

More generic cloud updates include tighter integration with Facebook, Twitter and Live Messenger.

[Editor's Note: You might also be interested in reading Microsoft Unveils Its 'Mango' Update for Windows Phone 7.]

Internet Explorer 10

Even though IE9 has only recently launched, a “test drive” version of IE10 has already been made available for download. With the majority of cloud services being accessed through a web browser, this new version of IE could shape how users access and interact with the cloud for years to come.

IE10 is currently in the very early stages, but it appears the team are focusing on a standards’ approach to the rendering engine (building on the good work they started with IE9) and hardware acceleration. New CSS3 features such as multi-column layout, grid layout and gradients are all now supported. Microsoft has also released a number of new HTML5 demos with which developers can put the browser through its paces.

The most significant feature in IE10 is improved hardware acceleration support. As the Web becomes the environment for users to interact with applications, so the browser becomes the main tool of use. Providing as much computational power to the browser as possible will become increasingly important.

Microsoft is taking a different approach to the likes of Chrome, Firefox and Opera by optimizing its browser for the underlying operating system. By taking this approach, it believes IE10 can offer performance improvements that other browsers will struggle to match.

Perhaps most interestedly of all, and tying Microsoft's cloud access strategy together, IE10 was first demoed running on an ARM chip using a new version of Windows developed especially for this platform. As the cloud becomes the norm for many end users, the latest version of IE running on a Windows tablet or smart phone might just be the tool of choice for many of use.

[Editor's Note: You might also be interested in reading: Take Internet Explorer 10 for a Spin as Windows 8 Leaks.]