Microsoft pricing, mobile, support needs new song and dance

Ron Barrett

It's no secret I like Microsoft products. But that doesn't mean I think Microsoft is flawless. I would like to see Microsoft improve its consumer pricing, mobile products and self-help support.

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Microsoft's pricing strategy often has me scratching my head. I am befuddled by Microsoft's ability to give away tremendous amounts of software in some of the partner programs like the Action Pack subscription, yet individual users are still paying through the nose for Windows and Office. It amazes me that a full version of Windows 7 Ultimate is $319 retail while a 10-user CAL version of Server 2008 Standard retails for $1,209 (or $120.09 per user). Wouldn't it be better if Microsoft wooed the consumer market with more competitive pricing?

When it comes to baffling, I cannot figure out how Microsoft can be the desktop and messaging giant it is and yet struggle at another key market: mobile. Mobile devices are the cornerstone of social media and realtime collaboration. While Microsoft makes many promises, Windows Mobile time and again looks like the cousin you are forced to take to the prom. It's not terribly bad looking but no one wants to dance with it. I would like to see an innovative Windows Mobile 7 product, not an imitator. For instance, let's see it make some strides in the areas of mobile speech recognition and speech-to-text translation.

As for support, I feel sorry for anyone who needs to use Microsoft's Web site to find technical support. While many of Microsoft's sites are user friendly – try the Office Communications Server Web site, Microsoft Downloads, or even Microsoft Research – the company's online technical repository is one of the worst out there for resolving issues. I recently spent hours looking for a solution to a Server 2003 issue while the site kept sending me an irrelevant knowledgebase article on Windows NT 4.0.

While I'm on support, Microsoft could beef up its technical certification resources. I'm not unhappy with TechNet Learning, in fact I quite enjoyed writing reviews for the virtual labs a few years back and think this is a great resource for IT professionals. I have also enjoyed the Microsoft Learning Snacks very much. However, I would like to see more resources to help IT pros with certification, including actual practice exams. I'd also like to see some sneak peeks to help an IT pro ascertain if a specific course was needed before signing up and discovering it wasn't the right fit.

Barrett is a former IT director of a large financial institution and is currently an independent trainer, author and consultant.

Can Microsoft open its arms to FOSS?

By Mitchell Ashley

Microsoft has gone through a lot of changes since Bill Gates' departure. In the old days Microsoft was brash and over-the-top and thought it could bully users into using Microsoft, and only Microsoft, wares. Today's Microsoft is searching for its next identity in an upside down, open source, cloud-centric world, with competitive threats coming from every direction -- from old enemies such as Apple and Oracle to relative newcomers such as Red Hat and Google.

Ironically, Microsoft has changed the most and the least when it comes to open source software. Redmond can no longer ignore the fact that the lion's share of the Internet is built on Linux and the open source LAMP stack (Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP). Some enterprises still have a Microsoft-centric environment based on ASP.Net, but mixed environments are far more prevalent and in those, open source is the rule rather than the exception.

Microsoft is tip toeing into a new relationship with open source, but still in very measured, self-serving ways. It's most notable actions were the contribution of Hyper-V drivers to the Linux kernel under the GPL license, improved support for PHP apps running on Windows Server 2008 and in Microsoft's emerging cloud services, and the opening of file formats for Office documents and Outlook .pst files. Microsoft also surprised everyone by forming the CodePlex Foundation, a non-profit open source organization. While the latter is still struggling for legitimacy, taken together, all of these moves are groundbreaking for the king of proprietary software.

More telling is Microsoft's change of heart in acknowledging non-Microsoft products. The company is supporting competitors like VMware and Citrix Xen in System Center Virtual Machine Manager, and Firefox and Opera browsers as legitimate SharePoint clients, especially in SharePoint 2010 and Office Web Apps. It even went as far as announcing a SharePoint client for the Apple iPhone. Microsoft also announced bilateral testing with Red Hat to ensure Red Hat Linux and Windows Server would function under each other's KVM (Kernel Virtual Machine) and Hyper-V hypervisors.

Those may be revolutionary steps for Microsoft, but to gain legitimacy in the online world, ruled as it is by free open source software, the company will have to go much further. Microsoft must actively participate and contribute to open source projects that benefit more than just itself. It should, for example, transition some existing free products, such as Live Essentials, into open source projects. But it seems like it will be a long time before we begin to see Microsoft truly embrace open source.

Ashley is founder of several start-ups and is principal consultant at Converging Network LLC.

Don't be arrogant: size matters

By Michael Surkan

Microsoft faces many challenges in the coming years. Not only is technology changing, but business models and tough macro-economic realities will put severe pressure on the company, and there is no silver bullet that will ensure it will emerge triumphant.

The bare fact is the culture Microsoft created, which has successfully delivered some of the most profitable products in history, won't necessarily work in new growth areas. The very way Microsoft is structured in terms of job functions and engineering and marketing disciplines makes it exceedingly difficult for success in fields that require new ways of divvying up roles and responsibilities.

For example, it is unlikely that Microsoft will ever become a leader in mobile devices, as its struggles with Zune prove, or that it will become a Goliath in advertising and search with Windows Live/Bing, or that it will own a prominent position in consumer video as the failed Soapbox service shows. Meanwhile, software upgrades are liable to slow dramatically as buyers opt to keep systems far longer than manufacturers ever imagined.

Worse, any efforts Microsoft does make to transform its business to adopt the new business models runs the risk of harming the remaining (and highly profitable) businesses it still has. Microsoft may be in a declining business, but it has the potential to still keep making gobs of cash for decades if managed correctly.

To do this, Microsoft needs to do two things 1) avoid falling into traps of arrogance and 2) improve the quality of the software it builds.

Unfortunately, there are too many examples where Microsoft has decided to go its own way even when customers or partners wanted something else. Engineers pursue grand strategies to implement new features or frameworks with brilliant designs in the belief that Microsoft knows best and that the market will follow.

Even something as mundane as the implementation of 64-bit versions of Windows reveals this "we know best" attitude. Instead of creating a 64-bit version of the operating system that would have maximum compatibility with the 32-bit versions, Microsoft engineers decided to create a separate registry for 64-bit applications. This has led to all manner of difficulties in allowing 64-bit and 32-bit applications to communicate. There might have been good security or architectural reasons for segregating registries, but the result is more hassle for end users and developers for relatively negligible benefits.

Arrogance also appears when Microsoft creates APIs that lack critical functionality needed by programmers, while refusing to work on older APIs (with similar functionality) the whole industry relies on. This kind of attitude -- which permeates almost everything at Microsoft -- has to end.

Ironically, even while Microsoft takes a "we know best" attitude, it fails to put enough focus on its core engineering processes. This often results in code that is difficult to maintain and causes problems down the road. This is not unique to Microsoft. I would argue Microsoft has some of the best engineering practices in the world. But the very breadth and longevity of Microsoft's core products (i.e. Windows and Office) make it a critical issue for the company. Far too little quality control takes place when new code is created and added to the operating system, and exceedingly small efforts are undertaken to rationalize and remove old code.

It speaks volumes about Microsoft's own internal engineering processes that third-party developers continuously discover APIs that were never documented. The truly scary thing about this is Microsoft's engineering managers usually aren't even aware of these APIs. It's not as if there is some nefarious effort to hide things from outsiders. Instead it turns out Microsoft's internal processes simply don't include a method to discover when some solitary engineer throws in a new API.

When new APIs are added, older APIs with similar functionality are usually left to co-exist, creating confusion about which interfaces developers should be using. There are examples where three generations of APIs, exhibiting similar functionality, continue to co-exist. Worse, the lack of thought about the long-term strategy for rationalizing APIs often means that new generations of APIs can lack key functions that developers rely on in the old versions, thereby making it impossible for programmers to completely migrate to the new APIs even if they wanted to.

At the same time, with every new product release a higher portion of engineering time is spent just maintaining pre-existing code. This slowly erodes Microsoft's very ability to innovate and puts resources into improvements. I am not suggesting Microsoft should suddenly start gutting old code from its products (which would invariably cause lots of compatibility problems). But the company should at least put more deliberation into creation of new code and give a consistent message to third-party developers: Use new APIs rather than new APIs for some areas and old ones in others.

Microsoft also needs to give up the pursuit of growth based on the "next great thing." This desire to compete with the hottest technologies has become Microsoft's Achilles heel, leading it down paths that jeopardize its existing business. That said, the future isn't at all bleak for Microsoft. Windows 7 demonstrated a marked shift away from the grandiose, and ambitious, efforts of the past. If Microsoft focuses on a long-term approach to quality it will continue to be a viable company for decades to come.

Sarkan is a former Microsoft program and product manager for the Windows division, and a former IT manager.

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