One of the most telling indicators of a rapidly changing technology industry is that this ZDNet headline completely jarred me:

Microsoft…giving orders? Does. Not. Compute.

Rewind the industry a few years and this headline would seem soft. Back in the bad old days of Microsoft’s Windows and Office hegemonies, Microsoft ordered everyone around: Partners, competitors, even customers. That is, until cloud and mobile humbled the Redmond giant.

The newly resurgent Microsoft under CEO Satya Nadella, however, speaks softly and carries a big stick…made out of peppermint and sugar. It’s a collaborative approach that is winning the company accolades–and customers–in the cloud as developers flock to a kinder, gentler (and much more open) Microsoft.

The long march toward open

I’m giving credit to Nadella but, actually, Microsoft’s shift toward open source, specifically, and openness, generally, started under former CEO Steve Ballmer. Microsoft first started attending and sponsoring open source conferences over a decade ago, with then open source (er, “shared source”) chief Jason Matusow braving hordes of angry open sourcerors to preach Microsoft’s own thoughts on software collaboration.

SEE: A Microsoft we can actually believe (TechRepublic)

Eventually, Microsoft learned that conferences are nice but code speaks much more loudly. So, the company started contributing to existing projects and spinning up some of its own. Initially, this happened (for the most part) on CodePlex, Microsoft’s open source repository. But again, eventually Microsoft learned that playing nicely with others required playing on the same playground, GitHub.

So Microsoft did that, too.

In this way, Microsoft has slowly, incrementally earned the trust of developers. It is now, as I’ve written, a “Microsoft we can actually believe,” and it’s making Microsoft Azure a serious competitor to Amazon Web Services, which has dominated Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) for so long that the prospect of any real competition seemed farfetched.

Giving AWS a run for its money

How serious a competitor? While every other public cloud competitor is fading into the rounding error existence of a Gartner Magic Quadrant “Niche Player,” Microsoft has closed the gap on AWS each of the last three years. It’s now a two-horse race between Microsoft and Amazon for control of a soon-to-be $195 billion public cloud business, according to IDC data.

SEE: Amazon still crushing cloud competition, says Gartner Magic Quadrant for IaaS (TechRepublic)

Both companies base their enterprise appeal on developer appeal. AWS is happy to build a plethora of cloud services that it manages, giving developers a one-stop shop. It’s also happy for third-party providers to extend its ecosystem with their own services.

Microsoft Azure, however, goes further in actively courting these partners. Take, for example, its work with Docker and Apache Mesos to make containers sing on Azure. Microsoft has also been much more inclined to find ways for its partners to make money on Azure, rather than focusing first on its own needs.

AWS’ strategy aligns with its status as the market leader. Microsoft’s is appropriate for a challenger. Both have proved successful, leaving the public cloud IaaS market as a two-horse race.

What will be particularly interesting to watch is whether Microsoft can maintain the “kinder, gentler cloud” approach that has made it so appealing to developers even as it grows in market share. If it can, Microsoft has the opportunity to completely remake its corporate image even as it offers a distinct, winning alternative to AWS.