Free beer but no gorillas: Microsoft plays hard at partner conference

BOSTON - The Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference began not with a speech, not with a product demonstration, but with rock music.

As attendees filtered in, the EB Farley Band performed, followed shortly after by an African children's choir and a video that featured a man in a patriotic tri-cornered hat and a powdered wig asking conference attendees to comment on obscure Massachusetts laws such as, "No gorilla is allowed in the back of any car." (Nuclear weapons are similarly prohibited.)

The fun of course was inevitably interrupted by company news. In what CEO Steve Ballmer said may have been "the single most inevitable announcement in the history of Microsoft," the company introduced Microsoft Dynamics CRM Live, a Web-based version of its customer relationship management software, at the conference in Boston Tuesday.

As Senior Product Manager Paul Duffy demonstrated the product onstage, Ballmer looked over his shoulder and provided commentary. Duffy showed that the software could use the same data that is available in the local version of the program and integrate it with other information, including Windows Live maps. After mapping a set of realty data onto a satellite image, a yellow block on the map indicated that some data was missing. "What's the problem?" Duffy asked the audience. Steve Ballmer, ever the businessman, chimed in, "We have something unsold!"

The crowd cheered for the demonstration of the so-called "mashup," which served as an example of how the system could be customized by Microsoft partners for their clients. Partners could also present the data through custom-written "gadgets." (Gadgets, which sit on the right side of the Vista desktop and display constantly updated information, are Microsoft's belated answer to Apple's and Yahoo's Widgets). Microsoft Dynamics CRM Live, part of a broader software-as-a-service push, is slated for launch in North America during the second quarter of 2007. It is the first of many Live services that will be targeted at corporate users from both the line of Dynamics business applications, as well as, other corporate software, according to Microsoft.

The crowd's spirits were raised later in the day when Doug Burgum, senior vice president for Microsoft's business group, proposed a toast to the company's partners, then signaled for cold beer to be brought in so everyone in the room could participate. "I knew I'd add value before the day was done," quipped one audience member.

Attendees cheered when Microsoft announced it would simplify its Dynamics licensing into three pricing tiers: Business Essentials, Advanced Management, and Advanced Management Enterprise (roughly described by one presenter as "good, better, best.") In addition, Microsoft promised to provide free online training for all Dynamics users. The attendees, who came from Peru, Russia, India, England, France, and a slew of other countries to participate in the conference, seemed pleased with this announcement too, although this may have been partly due to the beverages.

At no point at the conference did the company acknowledge the string of about 10 cabs lined up outside the convention center Tuesday morning. The cabs proudly bore ads for IBM's Lotus software, promising "a better way to partner." Until this computing juggernaut offers free beer, rock and roll, and a man in a colonial getup, however, Microsoft seems to have the edge.

Meanwhile, at the end of the conference Thursday, the company will hold a "Partner Celebration" with a performance by chart-topping rock band Train, who also performed at last month's TechEd bash in Boston.

Nobody can say Microsoft doesn't know how to party.

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