In all the talk about the upcoming release of Windows 8 and Windows Phone, conventional wisdom holds that the operating system may be competitive, but Microsoft (MSFT) needs better apps if it is to build its market share beyond the single digits.
But Microsoft has a secret weapon investors should know about. Its Azure cloud.
Unlike Apple's iCloud, which serves Apple and its customers with storage and software downloads, Azure is a full-featured, rentable cloud. It's a business service, like Amazon's (AMZN) EC2 is a business service.
Microsoft has aimed Azure at its own enterprise customers, whom it assumed wanted a cloud migration strategy, but most decided they liked what they had just fine, and those who committed to cloud decided they didn't need Microsoft any more.
Now it has a new strategy. Azure Mobile Services will let companies deploy mobile apps to mobile employees through the cloud without server side coding.
That's a big deal.
Many companies that are committed to mobile aren't cloud experts, and if you are a mobile developer without a cloud strategy you're going to be stuck if you're successful and everyone "rushes to the rail" to get what you got.
For now, this is primarily for internal enterprise use, for what we used to call the "Intranet" back in the 1990s. Intra, meaning within, as opposed to Inter, meaning between. People liked puns back in the 20th century.
In its preview period, corporate developers can use features like SQL database support with full user authentication and push notification on 10 apps free, moving up to 165 Megabytes outbound each day. The preview will be hosted at Microsoft's east coast data center.
And on the corporate part of transition, Azure puts Microsoft ahead. The question for investors is to what extent they can capitalize on that lead.
If you think of enterprises as being like small app vendors, and see apps gradually evolving into business tools as well as consumer products, the answer has to be, at least, maybe.
Disclosure: I am long MSFT.