Microsoft Corp. is hoping to attract developers to its Windows Azure cloud computing platform after it unveiled a pair of new services on Tuesday that will give app makers easy access to popular datasets and a new hosted online marketplace.

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In addition, the company also announced that Azure, a hosted platform that gives users the ability to roll out apps on-demand from Microsoft’s cloud, would officially go into production on Jan. 1.

All the announcements were made at this week’s Microsoft Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles

Unlike IBM Corp., which earlier this week revealed its intention to start helping customers more easily build private clouds, Microsoft is targeting its cloud computing rivals, such as, a little differently.

The company’s new online marketplace, which would host business-focused apps built by Microsoft developer partners, appears to be in direct competition with’s AppExchange marketplace.

Barnaby Jeans, an audience marketing manager at Microsoft Canada Co.’s Mississauga, Ont.-based offices, said that because Azure and the Pinpoint marketplace are currently in a community technology preview, all customers are permitted to roll out apps for free until the beginning of February.

This will allow users to test the applications they might need and understand how the billing process might actually work, he added.

Pinpoint is primarily focused on high-level enterprise clients right now, Jeans said, but Microsoft also plans to tap into the mid-market with the service.

Eric Dorgelo, vice-president of product development for Vancouver-based Web developer Sitemasher Corp., said deploying its flagship Web site platform tool to Azure and hosting it on Pinpoint was straightforward.

He was also impressed with Microsoft’s ability to offer Windows Server 2008 R2 virtual machine support on Azure. This would enable customers to easily move applications around their environment during huge traffic peaks.

Microsoft’s other new offering is an Azure subsystem codenamed Dallas, a tool that allows developers to plug popular data streams right into their apps. Currently, Microsoft has loaded in U.S. government census data, mapping information from NAVTEQ, and assorted data from NASA, the Associated Press, and many other sources.

This new “dataset-as-a-service” offering is also currently available as a community tech preview, Jeans said.

“Historically, you’ve have to license this data,” Jeans said. “This provides a centralized point that app developers can connect to and make use of that dataset.”

Jeans added that Dallas’ usage and pricing model would not be determined until Microsoft is able to gauge user interest in the community tech preview.

For Ryan St. Hilaire, product manager at Vancouver-based Web developer Vision Critical, the ability to avoid purchasing and maintaining this data streams will be helpful to many developers, especially with census and mapping data in such high demand from end-users.

“A large drug store company might want to know where somebody shopped recently and want to overlay store data with map data,” he said.

When conducting market research surveys, St. Hilaire added, the same company might also want to take that customer data and compare it with census data from Azure.

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