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Azure App Services, mBaaS, and Universal Apps

Apr 7, 2015 Mobile and Web Apps Dennis Junk

Azure App ServicesIt could be that Microsoft’s focus was too narrowly set on the enterprise market. Or maybe, as the old charge against them ran, they were too accustomed to being able to control who used what software on what device. In any case, Microsoft got off to a slow start in the race for dominance in the cloud market. But for the past few years they’ve been determined to make up the distance lost to the likes of Amazon and Google. As the company may have  finally learned when they made Azure available to Linux applications, the missing puzzle piece seems to have been handing the reins over to customers as much as possible, and that means creating technologies that play well with each other. Now that services like Azure and Office 365 are making steady gains in the cloud market, Microsoft’s leaders are setting their sights on another big race they got off to a poor start in—mobile. But they’re doing it with a service that helps make applications work regardless of the device you run them on—be it a desktop, smart phone, or tablet. The result they hope to achieve is greater efficiency in app development and greater flexibility in app usage.

With the recent release of Azure App Services, Microsoft is trying to break out of the standard one-app for one-device model of business computing. The end-goal is to push out so-called universal apps that you can access on desktops, tablets, or phones—regardless of whether these devices are running Windows 10, iOS, or Android. And developers using the Apple or Google operating systems won’t have to pay more for subscriptions to the service.

What are Azure App Services?

Azure App Services comprise four different kinds of app development: Web Apps, Mobile Apps, API Apps, and Logic Apps. When you watch the demos, what you see are really easy drag-and-drop procedures for creating apps that pull data from existing SaaS offerings like Office 365, Drop Box, and even Facebook and Twitter. You can even build apps that pull information from legacy web applications, like an old form on a mechanic’s website, and send it into a third-party app like a Salesforce CRM.

The new offering brings together what used to be three separate services: Azure Websites, Azure Mobile Services, and Azure BizTalk Services. BizTalk’s function is to allow developers to take information from one source and translate it into a format that can be used by another source. And you can see this sort of translation of data from how it’s used in one app to how it can be used by another in the demos for Azure App Services. With businesses’ customers and employees relying on a range of desktop and mobile devices, this kind of aggregation of what had been siloed data is becoming ever more important.

mBaaS as a Path to Mobile Market Dominance

What Microsoft seems to be doing in bundling these services is going after the market for mobile backend as a service, or mBaaS. Any app that requires user authentications or integrations with other systems will need to be connected to the cloud. There are free backend services available from Amazon, Apple, and Google, but these only cover apps that get low traffic. For a major enterprise app, backend services can get really pricey. Microsoft is therefore going after developers who use any of the three main platforms—iOS, Android, or Windows—and combining mobile, web, and enterprise functions into a single service to entice them onto their mBaaS. The appeal is that if you use Azure you can build the app once and quickly adapt it to run on any device, with any operating system.

Closing the "App Gap"

It’s no secret that just as they were slow to get onboard with the cloud the Microsoft people are already behind when it comes to mobile. Apple and Google each offer almost a million and a half apps in their app stores, but Microsoft to date only has about 500,000. And of course Windows Phones have yet to catch on nearly as well as iPhones and Androids. But, if Microsoft can lock in a leading position in the competition for mobile backend services, they’ll be well positioned to make further gains in the mobile market in general. To achieve this, they're leveraging their current strengths in the area of enterprise cloud computing to help companies create apps centered not on one device or another, but on the business processes those apps are designed to streamline.

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