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Microsoft gets its annual performance review

When the snow starts to fly, you know its time for the annual critique of Microsoft from the sages at the Kirkland, Wash., consulting firm, Directions on Microsoft. Among the recommendations for 2006 are more tools for Vista development and clearer software release roadmaps.

Microsoft is a vendor that touches nearly every corporate enterprise, so it's no surprise that every strategic move this company makes in terms of enterprise technology development is of interest to Windows administrators.

With that thought in mind, the IT sages over at the Kirkland, Wash., consulting firm, Directions on Microsoft, have published their annual assessment of the software company. So, what worked in 2005? Where does Microsoft have to go in 2006? Check out some of the analysts' thoughts and recommendations, as excerpted from Directions on Microsoft's yearly critique.

Make a systems management downpayment

Microsoft has an impressive vision for its systems management platform -- software that manages other software. The Dynamic Systems Initiative (DSI) could significantly improve the availability of critical systems and establish a new standard for software that is built from the ground up to be monitored and managed efficiently. This is potentially one of Microsoft's strongest competitive assets: no other vendor (nor the open source community) has such a broad range of software under one roof, and thus the ability to design it to work together. So far, however, critical pieces of the DSI are vaporware. In 2006 the company needs to flesh out its management vision by documenting components such as the Systems Definition Model, on which future management products depend. It also needs to create and promote the tools that developers will need to design manageable applications.

Reengineer engineering for clearer roadmaps

Customers and partners need product release roadmaps from Microsoft to schedule training, plan rollouts, and decide whether to sign up for the multiyear software maintenance plans that make up a large part of Microsoft's revenue. Software developers need roadmaps to plan their own products around Microsoft's, and investors need roadmaps to see where Microsoft's future growth will come from. But too often these groups have to make major decisions with no clear idea of what Microsoft will deliver and when. This problem will take years to solve -- if it can be solved at all. However, in 2006 Microsoft could make a start by clarifying its policies. For example, the company could state whether Windows Client will be consistently released with alternating major and minor (R2) releases, as was proposed for Windows Server by Senior Vice President Bob Muglia, and could explain whether the criteria for releasing separately shipped "feature packs."

Licensing: value for the money

After harping about licensing for several years, we saw real progress in 2005: better documentation, better software maintenance benefits, better use of the Web for product rights, pricing and other product data. But problems remain, particularly the disconnect between the pricing of the Software Assurance maintenance plan and actual product release cycles. "Maintenance and service revenue could play a major part in Microsoft's future, but current price points and subscription model probably won't take the company there," said Paul DeGroot, lead analyst for sales and services.

Take Vista into the boardroom

Windows Vista could offer large organizations improvements in software development, security, reliability, systems management and user interface. However, public demonstrations have been full of cool graphics effects and consumer features that probably turn off more IT staff than they attract, and sales of Windows upgrade rights to corporations have been disappointing.

In 2006, [Microsoft's developer] division needs to get going on the next generation of basic tools to support Vista, so that companies start to see payoffs in the applications they develop.
Directions on Microsoft,

In 2006, Microsoft has to settle on a feature set for Vista that appeals to enterprises, explain clearly what the feature set is and reveal what PC hardware and other infrastructure corporations require to reap the benefits. "The Windows client division has to tell corporate customers why they want Windows Vista, and why they shouldn't wait until they buy new hardware," said Rob Helm, director of research.

Lead application security and reliability

Microsoft has always offered guidelines for how to develop secure, reliable applications on Windows, but the company rarely had the discipline to enforce them, even with its own applications. The result has been a treadmill: Developers inside and outside of Microsoft continue to write applications that fail or require unsafe levels of privilege to run, while the Windows team develops increasingly complex workarounds (such as the User Account Protection mechanisms of Windows Vista) to keep these applications going. Meanwhile, Microsoft's antispyware team hesitates to say whether clearly malicious software, such as a recent digital rights management tool that shipped on some Sony CDs, and that observers deemed a "rootkit," violates its guidelines. The run-up to Vista in 2006 could be Microsoft's last chance to stop badly behaved Windows applications by publishing a definitive set of guidelines and enforcing the guidelines in its logo programs and malicious software protection products -- even against its own developers.

Deliver clarity on managed solutions

In 2005, Microsoft began to directly deploy and manage PC software for customers like Energizer Holdings. If expanded, this "managed solutions" business could be profitable in its own right, but also boost the Windows and Office franchises, which together generate 50% of Microsoft's revenues and the bulk of its profits. However, expansion could also hurt the loyal system integrator partners who not only move thousands of units of Windows and Office onto PCs, but also push the company's increasingly important server products.

Get going on tools

Microsoft lavishly supports software developers with low-cost development tools and technical information, making developers some of the strongest advocates for Windows and other strategic products. However, the company's developer division just completed a difficult product cycle for Visual Studio 2005, and time is short to deliver the tools that corporate developers will need to take advantage of Windows Vista. In 2006, the division needs to get going on the next generation of basic tools to support Vista, so that companies start to see payoffs in the applications they develop.

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