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Microsoft has unveiled a cloudy content distribution service that will intensify its competition with Amazon Web Services (AWS).

Azure Media Services is billed as a “cloud platform for managing and distributing media to any screen, anywhere” and as a cloudified version of Microsoft's existing Media Platform.

Users can encode media, then make it available on-demand or live. The Azure service supports rental of or subscriptions to content, which can be delivered to HTML5, Flash, Silverlight, Windows 8, iPad, iPhone, Android, Xbox, Windows Phone and a few more platforms to boot.

Microsoft is keen for would-be users to understand the new cloudy service can do just about anything required to get video into Joe and Jane Public's eyeballs, all without messy on-premises hardware or the need to adopt new tools. The company is also keen on automation, talking up “media workflows” that take the hassle out of putting video online by allowing the act of uploading to also initiate encoding and publishing.

Redmond has also dealt with an important inhibitor for this kind of service – the time required to upload large files into the cloud – by partnering with bulk upload specialist Aspera and offering a .NET bulk ingest library to speed things along.

In a blog post launching the service, Microsoft's Scott Guthrie says it could be used to launch services comparable to Hulu or Netflix. That suggestion is hard not to interpret as a swipe at AWS, whose data centres infamously failed over the holiday period, talking Netflix with them.

The tone of Guthrie's post, and the features of Azure Media Services, also seem to signal an intention to offer a very strong alternative to AWS' Cloud Front service, which also does cloudy media distribution. Cloud Front also requires some finicky configuration to distribute content, but that's endurable as the chance to shift bits to different locations is latency-reducing and therefore experience-enhancing for end users.

That's the kind of thing businesses like Akamai do as their bread and butter, in some cases by placing content caching and distribution boxen in useful places.

Microsoft has not explained how Azure Media Services will match that feature. Nor is pricing simple to understand, as encoding, streaming and data transfer each attract their own price. A similar regime prevails at AWS. ®

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