Microsoft turns politics into a cloud computing product

Company unveils new set of hosted tools and code for political campaigns, activist groups

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Microsoft Corp., which has spent millions lobbying politicians in recent years, appears to be looking to get some of that money back by selling a new set of services and tools for political campaigns and activist groups.

The new offering, called CampaignReady, is based on an interactive platform called TownHall that runs in Microsoft's Azure cloud platform. The system stores data in a SQL Azure server.

Developers can download the TownHall code without charge, and are free to extend and customized it.

TownHall is part of a suite of online offerings, which range from free services like Office Live to paid online advertising programs. The suite also includes fee-based services built around existing products including Dynamics CRM Online.

The Town Hall tools are designed to provide political and lobbying campaigns the ability to connect with users across various online platforms, such as Facebook and iPhone Apps. The service can also be used to centrally manage contact lists and user responses.

The online TownHall application also includes templates for engaging users on specific topics and issues.

Stanley Freck, who directs Microsoft's public sector cloud computing efforts, said the tools aim to "help help campaigns be ready to take advantage of technology [and] to help campaigns listen to their constituents."

Freck noted that politicians using Microsoft cloud-based tools in winning campaigns may become advocates for other cloud-based services. "We want to make our money on our platform and what we think enables it to grow," said Freck.

Microsoft unveiled the hosted tool set at the Politics Online conference held here today.

Microsoft's new services take on several companies offering hosted political and campaign tools that often build online communities tageting specific audiences. Wired for Change, for instance, offers tools aimed at Democrats and progressive organizations.

Microsoft's effort is politically agnostic, although in terms of its political spending it has favored Democratic candidates since the 2004 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Of the political contributions credited to Microsoft by the center, nearly $900,000, so far this year, 60% have gone to Democrats.

John Brougher, a business development executive at Wired for Change, said political organizations "like to work with people you trust," as well as offer a lot of customer support.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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