Microsoft’s weapon in high-stakes cloud-computing battle with Amazon? Freebies

Microsoft isn’t banking on snazzy marketing or technical chops alone to make its Azure service a winner in the critical cloud-computing market. It’s also offering freebies, betting that discounts and free technical support today will produce paying customers down the line.

DefinedCrowd, a Seattle software startup, had a choice to make when it was developing its first product last year — build on the cloud-computing foundation offered by the dominant, or Microsoft’s upstart competitor?

For founder Daniela Braga, the competing services seemed about even in terms of features. On price, Amazon’s tools were a bit cheaper than Microsoft’s. And more developers were comfortable working with Amazon Web Services (AWS), the cloud-computing pioneer and now the market’s largest player.

But Microsoft held the trump card: an offer of $500,000 in credits to spend on Microsoft’s Azure cloud services over three years, a benefit DefinedCrowd had earned by participating in a Microsoft startup program. That kind of sum can pay for the entire technology-infrastructure cost of getting a software company’s first products off the ground.

“That was kind of hard to refuse,” said Aya Zook, business-development manager with DefinedCrowd, which makes tools to train software how to recognize speech or images.

The startup would build its software on Microsoft’s Azure.

Microsoft has staked its future on the cloud, the range of on-demand computing power and software services bundled into Azure and other products.

But Microsoft isn’t banking on snazzy marketing or technical chops alone to make Azure a winner. The technology giant is also offering bargains and freebies, including discounts to large businesses, free trial offers to all comers, and grants of cash for startups and nonprofits that try the service.

The programs are part of a broader, companywide effort to gain market share. The bet is that discounts and free…

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