I was one of many journalists on the call last week when CEOs Steve Ballmer and Mark Hurd trotted out a new $250 million partnership between Microsoft and HP. I mean, there were a lot of journalists -- including folks from the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek and other notable, long time tech pundits.

The news at hand was a big commitment to combine R&D between the companies to create a new generation of "application machine" of hardware, software and services all the way from design to packaging and delivery.

The bigger (and misunderstood) picture was about cloud computing and prepackaged SQL Server or Exchange on HP hardware with Microsoft/HP management software and virtualization. Need more stuff? Just buy more pre-loaded commodity hardware (HP didn't call it that) for your private cloud and run it easily in the same model Microsoft keeps promising its public cloud Azure project will someday materialize to be.

After that, the details thinned out and a lot of reporters on the call were confused and had to ask what the big deal was. After all, Microsoft and HP have made bundle announcements before (and the processor on your home PC is already optimized to run the software it came with). So where's the beef?  

Hurd and Ballmer might have overreached their audience's understanding of cloud computing, and needed to reiterate its importance, even as Ballmer was admitting up front that cloud was the new accepted model for business infrastructure. Hurd practically bent over backward when he said, "I guarantee you Steve and I would not be on this phone call if this was just another press release from HP and Microsoft."

But I can understand why the CEOs would only go so far with their statements. While Hurd and Ballmer promised that the deal would not affect other existing partnerships, what these two hyper-VIPs were doing was hedging -- offsetting future risk to the status quo -- and therein lies the message.

HP and Microsoft are in no hurry to outdate their traditional hardware or license refresh cycles and know many of their customers aren't expecting any such upheaval either. Change is difficult from either perspective. Vendors are loath to sacrifice partnerships where there's money to be made, and customers see risk.

At the same time, many see what's coming with the advent of commodity hardware and open-source software in the hands of virtualization and massive parallel processing. The ability to selectively execute such a strategy in public or private clouds adds a new wrinkle going forward. When the evidence of a tipping point arrives, Microsoft and HP (among others) need to have a viable commodity product in place or face catastrophic de-branding.

That's what customers should be thinking about too. A couple of weeks ago I offered the idea that annual IT budgets and capital commitments might start to look more risky going forward. It's the difference between buying the same brand of car every four years, and the knowledge that you can always have a decent car in your driveway, change it from a sports car to a minivan when you need to and pay for it less expensively (or only when you drive it).

Like the vendors, more customers are and should be hedging their infrastructure plans and revisiting their expected technology choices frequently.

At certain times, this has always been necessary. There's an archaic literary term, "the whys and the wherefores," that goes back to Shakespeare. As I was taught, "wherefore" actually means the same thing as "why," but more deeply. It deals with conflicted emotions and the reasons behind the reasons.

In other words, when Juliet called from her balcony to Romeo, "wherefore art thou?" she wasn't trying to see where he was. She was asking herself how she could be falling in love with someone different from everything she was used to -- from a rival clan and way of thinking no less -- and what that meant.

Juliet was hedging.