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Cloud Connect Microsoft developer and platform general manager Matt Thompson has claimed that among startups across the United States, interest in Google's App Engine is "almost nonexistent" and that only a "tiny number" have an eye on Salesforce's Force.com. Citing a recent Microsoft survey, Thompson said that if startups are interested in building and deploying apps on a so-called public cloud, they're interested in Amazon Web Services and, yes, Microsoft Azure.

"Salesforce has built a huge business. [It's] very successful," he said. "But if you go to the leading startups who are building apps today, Salesforce is an edge case. We see [interest in] Amazon [EC2], host-your-own setups, and Azure. Those are the top three."

Asked about Microsoft's claims, Salesforce told us that there are currently 340,000 members of the Force.com developer community, including startups such as Appirio, Financial Force, DocuSign, ServiceMax, GreatVines, and Model Metrics. Google went even further. "Every week, more than 150,000 applications, including many developed by start-ups such as Simperium (developer of Simplenote), Gri.pe, Farmigo, and others, are active on Google App Engine," a Google spokeswoman said.

"These applications have been developed by the more than 100,000 developers at companies large and small who are working on apps powered by Google App Engine. Everyday, the Google App Engine platform powers more than one billion pageviews across all App Engine applications."

The company also cited a survey of 150 businesses, published today, that ranked Google App Engine as the second leading cloud offering behind Amazon Web Services.

Microsoft's Thompson took the stage for a panel discussion this morning at the annual Cloud Connect conference in Santa Clara, California, and in typical Microsoft fashion, he wasn't shy about taking aim at the competition. At one point, he even made a crack about people who wear jackets – with fellow panelist Mathew Lodge, senior director of cloud services at VMware, sitting beside him in a jacket. "I'm a geek. That's what I do," Thompson said, when the talk turned to the developer tools that run atop Azure. "That's why I'm not wearing a jacket."

Azure is Microsoft's so-called platform cloud, a service that lets developers build and host applications via the web. Google's App Engine and Force.com are similar services. Unlike Amazon's EC2 "infrastructure cloud", these platform clouds let you build and host applications without juggling virtual-machine instances and other raw infrastructure resources. EC2 gives you access to those raw resources, providing a bit more flexibility than the platform clouds – but potentially more hassle as well.

Currently, Azure is a single public service hosted by Microsoft. But the company is working with partners to build appliances that will allow third parties to build their own Azure services. Asked if it was difficult to balance a public cloud with Microsoft's traditional business, where it's selling software for private hosting situations, Thompson said "no". Naturally.

"We haven't see that conflict yet," said Thompson, who runs Microsoft developer relations in the US. "We're finding solutions for each [individual customer]. Could it happen? Possibly. But so far, not yet."

Just as naturally, Thompson said that private clouds will be "very important going forward". This is in stark contrast to aN outfit like Amazon or Salesforce, which believes that the world should move to a model in which all applications are hosted on remote servers. For Amazon CTO Werner Vogels and Salesforce boss Marc arc Benioff, private cloud is an oxymoron.

"You run into services companies and you ask about the public cloud, and they say 'Why would I take the most important asset I have and put it in a place where I no longer manage it directly?'," Thompson explained. That asset, he said, is the customer list held by these companies.

Thompson did not acknowledge that Microsoft's Azure appliances are well behind schedule. They were supposed to arrive before the end of last year, but no one – neither Microsoft nor its partners HP, Dell, and Fujitsu – will say when they'll arrive. ®

Update: This story has been updated with comment from Google and Salesforce.

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