Imagine vast markets with hundreds of millions of customers, covering virtually every major technology but, often, using outdated systems that need to become more efficient. Looked at that way, cities are a ripe target, and Microsoft this week joined other technology companies as it launched a new initiative targeted at those centers of human activity.

Called CityNext, the initiative was announced Wednesday at the company's Worldwide Partner Conference taking place in Redmond, Wash. Unlike some city-focused initiatives by other companies, this one does not appear to offer any government-specific technology, but instead provides solutions using Microsoft software, devices and services in conjunction with its 430,000-member Partner Network around the globe.

Laura Ipsen, corporate vice president of Microsoft Worldwide Public Sector, said in a statement that CityNext, working with the Partner Network, can "scale solutions and services to do 'New with Less,' " so that cities can better serve their citizens and compete in the global marketplace.

Monitoring Data

Microsoft said that its ecosystem of partner solutions, devices and services can help to transform such city functions as energy and water, buildings, transportation, public safety and justice, tourism and recreation, culture, education, health and social services, and government administration.

The list of current CityNext customers is oriented toward municipalities outside the U.S., including Barcelona, Spain; Auckland, New Zealand; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Hainan Province in China; Hamburg, Germany; Manchester, England; and Moscow, Russia. Philadelphia is the only U.S. city currently on the CityNext list.

Microsoft pointed to an effort that involved Barcelona and CityNext partner company BISmart, which developed and launched an initiative to make city-related data Relevant Products/Services open to the public for real-time Relevant Products/Services monitoring. The company said the data allows Barcelona residents to access information affecting decisions about where to live or start a business Relevant Products/Services.

Another Microsoft partner company, cloud software firm Socrata Inc., has developed customizable dashboards for city governments so that citizens can "monitor how their leaders are performing in areas such as education, healthcare and job creation."

'Once-in-a-Generation' Shift

The CEO and founder of Socrata, Kevin Merritt, said in a statement that the CityNext initiative addresses "a once-in-a-generation global shift currently taking place in government," where governmental data is opened up and used to enhance citizen services. In addition to better access to data, the initiative is oriented toward enabling new capabilities through the cloud and extending current systems through what Microsoft calls "a modern solutions platform."

The market of cities is attracting a great deal of attention, leading to initiatives and, occasionally, specific government-oriented technology from such companies as IBM, Cisco, Avaya, Oracle, Kana Software and others.

Roger Kay, an analyst with Endpoint Technologies Associates, said Microsoft "doesn't have a whole lot of experience in this area," but added that the governmental arena is a "real opportunity." He suggested that, while cities still have bread-and-butter technology needs to increase the efficiency of systems to, say, fix potholes, Microsoft's long-term interest is more likely oriented toward the visionary needs of the city of the future.