As Microsoft enters 2007, it finds itself with a long list of new products to sell across all markets, from consumers to the biggest IT centers, which might prove more challenging than actually developing the products. With the exception maybe of Vista.
Beyond just marketing, there is the challenge of not being lost in the noise. Coming out with Vista, Office 2007, Exchange 2007, Expression, BizTalk Server 2006, Office Communication Server, .Net 3.0 and Internet Explorer 7.0 all in a short period of time can be a bit overwhelming. At that point, products become a blur. The focus for Microsoft (Quote) will have to be Windows and Office, since they are the company's franchise products.
Along with the hard-sell problem, another challenge is getting developers behind Vista. Microsoft has frequently compared Vista to Windows 95 in terms of significance. But as Greg DeMichilie of Directions on Microsoft points out, Microsoft doesn't have anywhere near the ISV support for Vista that it did for Windows 95.
"Back in 1995 before Windows 95 launched, the ISVs were lined up before the OS was even done, so they were ready to sell immediately," he told internetnews.com. "This time, most of the ISVs can't really afford to do that." Plus, he adds, they don't need to. Many Windows 3.1 applications broke on Windows 95, but there is much better compatibility between XP and Vista.
Fortunately, Microsoft is not asleep at the switch when it comes to developer support. There will be significant updates to its tools lines in 2007, including an update to Visual Studio 2005, another .Net update and the rest of the Expression Web development suite.
The update to Visual Studio 2005, codenamed Orcas, will be a significant update to the toolkit. It will feature upgrades to Visual C# and Visual Basic along with the addition of LINQ, a .Net extension that allows for making SQL calls within C#, and support for all of the major infrastructure libraries in .Net 3.0, as well as support for 64-bit Windows.
The other half of Vista
In addition to new tools, Microsoft will ship the other half of the Vista picture: Longhorn Server. Not much is known about Longhorn Server. The name hasn't even been officially chosen, although the common belief is it will be Windows Server 2007, following the trend with Microsoft's last server release ("Windows Server 2003").
This much is known: there will be 32-bit and 64-bit versions, with the 64-bit version optimized for high-workload situations, such as databases. And at least two versions are known: "Couger," a small business version, and "Centro," a mid-sized business edition.
When Microsoft ships Longhorn Server, the Vista client is going to need an upgrade to add new functionality that comes with the server. Will there be a service pack for Windows Vista less than one year after it ships? Microsoft isn't saying and no one knows for sure. Will that make people hold up before deploying Vista? Not likely. DeMichilie thinks many customers can't wait much longer.
"A lot of companies skipped Windows XP, and presumably a lot of companies that skipped XP are going to Vista, mostly on the strength of the security in Vista. So that's a pretty big deal." He added that notebook users might be quicker to embrace Vista than desktop users for a very good reason: BitLocker. This would render unreadable any data someone illegally obtains, he said. This year saw a number of lost notebooks with sensitive data by government agencies, such as the Veterans Administration and corporations like Boeing.
"I wonder how many times that has to happen before companies put real policies in place to deal with that."
Another brick in the wall
But Microsoft does face challenges. For starters, it has never been very good at selling itself. In 2005, the company ran print ads in IT publications that featured people with dinosaur heads pasted on their bodies. The text of the ads implied that people who hadn't upgraded to the latest version of Office were dinosaurs and behind the times.
There's just one problem: most people who hadn't upgraded to Office 2003 were most likely using Office XP and Office 2000. So what Microsoft was doing with those ads, as many bloggers and journalists pointed out, was insulting its own customer base.
In fact, Apple's kitschy "I'm a Mac" commercials have done a better job of selling the PC than Microsoft has done. Apple decided to ditch the actor playing "Mac" because the ads ended up backfiring, with "PC" coming off as sympathetic and "Mac" coming off as a smarmy jerk.
DeMichilie listed other challenges facing Microsoft; Google, online advertising, software as a service, open source and Linux, and so on. But there's one more challenge for Microsoft that isn't being discussed much: its human component.
There's been a shuffling at the top, with Bill Gates stepping away and Ray Ozzie stepping into his shoes as chief technologist. How that all works out remains to be seen.
Also departing Microsoft is Jim Allchin, co-president of the platform and services division at Microsoft. He joined Microsoft in 1990 to work on the Cairo project, which was supposed to be the replacement to Windows NT. Cairo never saw the light of day, with pieces of it ending up in NT 4, and Allchin took over as the project lead for Windows NT 3.5. Eventually he took the reigns of the operating system division.
Along with losing some old hands at the top, the bigger problem is the rank and file of Microsoft has ballooned. The company hired more than 10,000 staffers in fiscal 2006 (ended June 30, 2006), bringing the head count to over 71,000.
This has led to an increasing chorus of criticism. The company hired a high-profile RSS whiz named Niall Kennedy earlier this year to help the company with its RSS syndication efforts, but Kennedy left after only four months, saying Microsoft was too big, bloated and inefficient to get anything done.