"We'll build on the present," he said. "Software plus services is not a world that should be scary or problematic to you. If you know Exchange, you know Exchange and those skills, technologies will translate as we move from server to cloud. Same with SharePoint. Same with SQL Server."
Microsoft has talked generally about its plans for self-hosted storage and services for more than a year, but it has been reticent to explain the infrastructure changes that will occur between its on-premise software focus of today and the Web-based services of tomorrow.
Opportunities and threats in the Microsoft cloud
What Ballmer is saying may seem obvious but is important to partners who've spent much time and money working on their Windows know-how.
"You need to know that the learning, training and investments made today will seamlessly move to the new world," he said. "We will span a world of cloud-based, as well as enterprise on-premise-based, implementations."
"The way we do identity federation, if the customer wants something in the cloud and some [applications] on premise, we can do that with a single log in, single ID, much as we do with Active Directory with Exchange Online," Ballmer continued. "It's a fantastic way to bridge the world."
Ballmer is making a big promise here. Microsoft is both blessed and cursed by its .NET, Windows-based roots. Critics say its legacy, and the huge base of installed users, has prevented it from effectively competing with Google, Salesforce.com and other cloud-based forces.
"They have fantastic stuff in Microsoft Research, but they don't bring it out, because it will break Windows or whatever," said one Boston-based application developer in the Java camp. "They are hamstrung."
For those in this camp, Ballmer's words reinforce the notion that the Microsoft cloud will always be playing catch-up in software services. Others think that Microsoft is hitting the cloud at the perfect time -- after Salesforce.com and others have proven that there's a market for these services and that they are reliable, analysts said.
"They don't have to grease the skids," said Laurie McCabe, vice president of AMI Partners. "There's enough people out there who have tried this model, so it has credibility."
A lingering question is what form the toolset for cloud development will take. Will developers continue to use something that's an outgrowth of the current Visual Studio .Net or will there be an analagous cloud-based integrated development environment? Development partners expect to hear more detail on that at the upcoming Professional Developers Conference.
Many traditional value-added resellers (VARs) view the notion of cloud-delivered services as a disintermediation threat, but other classes of partners -- including independent software vendors (ISVs) and custom application developers -- see it as an expanded opportunity. Count John Watson, director of Black Marble, a Bradford, U.K.-based specialist in SharePoint and BizTalk, among that group.
"I think, as an application shop, this is good for us," Watson said.