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Microsoft and Amazon struck a brilliant partnership to take on Google in the next big thing for cloud computing

Julie Bort
Satya Nadella and Jeff Bezos

(Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Amazon CEO Jeff BezosChip Somodevilla / Staff)

  • Microsoft and Amazon announced a surprise partnership on Thursday in which they were jointly releasing for free a new software tool for developers called Gluon.
  • Gluon makes it easier for developers to build AI/machine learning systems, aka apps that can learn. 
  • But there's another, more important reason this partnership is interesting: it challenges Google in its one big area of dominance.

Microsoft and Amazon have joined forces to help spread artificial intelligence across apps.

The two companies released a new tool for developers called Gluon as a free and open source project, meaning anyone can use it or work on it and contribute to it for free.

Releasing new programming tools like this as open source is a way to get people to start using them, and it helps make sure these tools will do what people want them to do, because the users are the ones contributing features.

But there's another, more important reason that this partnership is interesting. 

Machine learning and AI are the next big things in cloud computing, with the potential to cause significant changes to the cloud business that Amazon and Microsoft have long dominated. 

And when it comes to AI and machine learning, Google seems to have an edge. Google has bet its cloud computing strategy on AI. The internet company believes AI will become so important to the cloud, and that Google will be so good at it, that Google will leapfrog Amazon and Microsoft and win the next cloud war.

An enemy in common

Google already has a head start, thanks to a tool it created called Tensorflow, also free and open source and aimed at helping developers build machine learning apps. Tensorflow is immensely popular with developers. In fact, it's the the fifth most popular project (by stars) on GitHub out of the over 2 million hosted on that site where open source projects are shared.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai

(Google's Sundar PichaiBeck Diefenbach/Reuters)
Although a programmer does not need to use Google's cloud to use Tensorflow – it's so popular Amazon's cloud also supports it – developers would have sort of a natural leaning toward Google's cloud if Tensorflow was important to them.

Naturally, Amazon has a competitor to Tensorflow called MXNet. That's Amazon's modus operandi: support the technologies its customers use, while also offering its own versions of the tech that it wholly controls. That way, it makes money either way.

Likewise, Microsoft also has a competitor to Tensorflow called CNTK. 

Gluon's role is to add a layer that makes MXNet and CNTK easier to use, work with and program. Only the MXNet version was released on Thursday but the CNTX version of Gluon is promised to come soon. 

Given Tensorflow's immense popularity, "TensorFlow already has a layer like this called Keras that has become extremely popular, so this might start to bring MXNet and CNTK to parity with TensorFow," explains Lukas Biewald CEO of machine learning CrowdFlower. CrowdFlower is a startup that helps companies build apps that know when a task can be automated and when a human needs to get involved.

So, when it comes to Gluon, the partnership between Amazon and Microsoft is a case of the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

"Gluon is an attempt by Microsoft and Amazon to regain some influence in AI tools," says one programmer commenting on Hacker News. "They're ganging up against Google's tools."

"We love TensorFlow"

Jeff Bezos

(Amazon CEO Jeff BezosDavid Ryder/Getty Images)
Amazon tech evangelist Matt Wood, insists that Amazon isn't really trying to squash Google's tool. "We love TensorFlow (and have a ton of developers using it on AWS)," he wrote on a comment on Hacker News. 

"Just like databases we’ll support a wide range of engines on AWS; some of our own like Gluon, along side others from the community like PyTorch and TensorFlow. They’re all first class citizens. We even fund separable (competing!) teams internally to focus on making sure AWS is the best place to run each of these popular engines," he wrote.

Still, there's a reason Amazon creates its own homegrown competitors to popular tech to give Amazon more control, and its own stake.

And Microsoft and Amazon have been known to cuddle up on other AI types of tech. In August, the two announced they were partnering to make their two voice assistants work better together, Amazon Alexa and Microsoft Cortana.

In any case, the competition to create more AI tools for developers, and make them easier to use with gets a thumb up from Biewald.

"Making neural nets easier to use is really good for CrowdFlower and frankly everyone. Right now they're a huge pain to build," he says.

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