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How did Microsoft just overtake Apple as the world's most valuable company?

Growth in Microsoft’s cloud business was up 76 percent in first quarter earnings for 2019.

For a brief moment, Microsoft overtook Apple to become the most valuable publicly traded company in the world, underscoring that while technology stocks have taken a beating on Wall Street in the past few weeks, Microsoft has been quietly speeding along, fueled by its transformation into a cloud computing company.

The software giant took the top spot on Monday, after concern over lower iPhone sales sent Apple shares lower — eliminating the margin of just a few billion dollars that had separated the companies.

Apple overtook Microsoft in 2010, marking what many saw at the time as the “end of an era.”

“Microsoft has, in some some ways, been under the radar, and has been able to build itself into a massive cloud behemoth,” said Daniel Ives, managing director of equity research at Wedbush Securities. “Now, investors have really started to take notice, especially among the tech carnage.”

Rarely is Microsoft mentioned in the same breath as the other tech giants. There’s even an acronym, FAANG, to describe the sector's major players: Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google. At 43 years old, Microsoft has an image as an elder among today’s younger tech behemoths, who are teenagers and young adults by comparison.

But analysts agree that Microsoft is well on its way to becoming a trillion-dollar company, a crown that has been held — and lost — by both Apple and Amazon. And Microsoft is likely going to achieve this through the growth of its cloud services, which powers everything from consumers wanting to check their email on the fly to companies looking for help managing apps and services hosted by Microsoft’s data centers.

Microsoft’s Azure cloud revenue was up 76 percent in its first-quarter earnings for 2019, which were reported last month. While Microsoft doesn’t break out Azure revenue, investment bank Evercore estimates it to be $7.74 billion for the fiscal year, putting it at about 7 percent of Microsoft’s annual revenue.

Microsoft isn’t the only one feeling the cloud boom, which forecasters agree will become increasingly important to the bottom line of tech giants as more companies complete their digital transformations.

By 2020, Amazon Web Services will have $44 billion in cloud revenue, compared to $19 billion from Microsoft Azure and $17 billion from Google Cloud Platform, according to a Citi Research report released earlier this year.

Apple wraps revenue for iCloud, its consumer-facing cloud service, into its services revenue. That category, which includes iTunes, the App Store and Apple Care, posted a record $10 billion profit last quarter.

The world’s three most valuable companies all have various cloud offerings that are fueling their growth, though Microsoft has one distinct advantage, according to analysts. It’s a software company that happens to make consumer devices. Amazon is an everything store that also has a strong cloud business. Apple makes consumer devices and happens to have a consumer cloud solution.

Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy, said Microsoft’s moment of glory on Monday, which could very well happen again this week, is the result of the steadiness of its services, while other technology stocks have taken a hit for a number of reasons.

“Apple is getting hit as [sales of] its bread and butter, the iPhone, are flattening, which has spooked investors,” he said.

As for the cloud, “Apple is focused on consumers and Amazon and Microsoft targets both consumer and businesses. Apple’s challenge is that unlike Amazon and Microsoft, it is a product-first company, where Amazon and Microsoft are service first.”

“It’s one of the most transformational enterprise spending shifts we have seen in the past 20 years,” said Ives. Microsoft’s bet on the cloud has “put the company in a position of strength,” he said.