One app uses drones to find survivors in hard-to-reach areas hit by natural disasters. Another uses a set-top camera accessory to spot scoliosis early in patients. A third uses games to encourage young diabetics to monitor their blood-sugar levels.

On the surface, these apps might look like they have nothing to do with each other, but they have some key elements in common:

The Imagine Cup is an annual global app competition among university students with more than $200,000 in cash prizes and tens of thousands of participants every year. Imagine Cup entrants must be currently enrolled university students, and each team is required to build and present an app hosted on Azure.

Microsoft uses the Imagine Cup competition to tout the benefits of using Azure as a development platform among university students worldwide. As savvy as today’s computer-science students might be, they still might not be familiar with some of the surprisingly powerful features available on Azure, such as its set of approximately 30 artificial-intelligence (AI) APIs, called Microsoft Cognitive Services. Developers can tap into Cognitive Service to easily add sophisticated capabilities to their apps, such as facial recognition, text analytics, and real-time speech translation. Having such power readily available is a huge boon to college-aged developers, who in the past have been responsible for dreaming up and creating many of the world’s most important apps, such as Twitter and Facebook.

Microsoft hopes Imagine Cup can make students aware of the openness of the Azure cloud platform. Gone are the days when the Redmond giant would promote its own applications and platforms over open-source solutions. Now, instead, Microsoft uses its willingness to embrace open-source solutions as a key selling point. Take its big-data solution, Azure HDInsight, as an example. HDInsight runs on Azure, but it is largely built from industry-standard, open-source big-data components, such as Apache Hadoop, Apache Hive, and Apache Spark.

Imagine Cup is popular worldwide, but new students still need to learn about the competition every year. And as part of the yearly strategy to spread the word about Imagine Cup and the Azure cloud, Microsoft evangelists go on a university tour, known as the Red Shirt Dev Tour, to teach students about the cool things their peers have been doing on the Azure cloud platform.

This year, Microsoft enlisted the help of Prowess to create all its supporting materials for the Red Shirt Dev Tour, including all the hands-on labs for students, a prototype web app displaying the power of the Azure platform’s built-in APIs, and multiple presentations.

As we began working on the project, a senior Microsoft evangelist told us that the company isn’t using the Red Shirt Dev Tour to persuade students to abandon other cloud platforms, such as Amazon Web Services (AWS), and focus entirely on Azure. Instead, Microsoft wants students to know what the Azure platform’s strengths are, so that they can make informed decisions in the future and choose the best development platforms for their applications.

The tagline for Imagine Cup is “Dream it. Build it. Live it.” And for us here at Prowess, it’s an honor to use our broad range of skills to help Microsoft encourage students around the world to dream, build, and live out new careers as developers, imagining great new applications and then seeing their dreams through to realization.

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