Of the myriad challenges Microsoft Corp. will face over the next few months, none will be as pressing as persuading Windows and Office users to upgrade to the companys XP versions.
The Redmond, Wash., software company will preview the Windows XP software this week. As it does, Microsoft will continue a two-front battle to regain lost ground in the embedded space and contain the growing acceptance of Linux in the enterprise.
In a wide-ranging interview with eWeek at the Microsoft Windows Embedded Developers Conference here last week, CEO Steve Ballmer said he was well-aware of the need to generate interest in and excitement around the new products. That starts this week when Chief Software Architect Bill Gates previews Windows XP to the media and analysts in Seattle.
"Im not even sure if Im going to be there; this will be Bills day," Ballmer said.
Gates will demonstrate the softwares new user interface, as well as its integration of digital media, according to Ballmer. In addition, he may give a sneak preview of .Net service integration with the software.
But while Ballmer downplayed the possible dampening effect the slowing economy could have on sales, personal and corporate IT spending almost always decreases in an economic slowdown. As a result, Microsoft will have to work that much harder to persuade customers to upgrade or buy the new products.
Compounding the situation, current Windows 2000 users so far are not enthusiastic about the XP products and claim few compelling reasons exist to warrant upgrading to Windows XP or Office XP.
Steven Blyth, chief technology officer at Supermarkets.com, in Anaheim, Calif., said the company had "wanted to get off Windows NT really badly." It had moved all of its 70 servers to Windows 2000, which has so far performed well. Its 70 desktops are running Windows 98 or Windows 2000, Blyth said.
"We were satisfied with that migration, and, as such, there is no need for us to rush into upgrading to something else," he said. "Windows XP may or may not be a welcome addition, depending on how well it performs. But there is nothing specific that is compelling me toward XP at this point. The technical direction seems cool, but that needs to be turned into producing concrete improvements to my business before it becomes motivating."
That sentiment is shared by Al Williams, director of distributed system services at Pennsylvania State University, in State College. His department runs several Windows 2000 server clusters and is migrating some 2,000 desktops to Windows 2000. While some of his staff have been beta testing Windows XP, Williams said: "I see no compelling reason to move to XP at this point. At some time in the future, we will have to have it so as to be current for teaching purposes. But I have heard and seen absolutely nothing that makes it compelling for me right now."
Office XP and Windows XP are also key components of Microsofts software-as-a-service .Net vision going forward, as they incorporate a range of features that leverage the Internet. But both Blyth and Williams said they did not fully understand or grasp the .Net vision.
"Ive seen the presentation and listened to the anecdotes but just dont understand how it will achieve all they say it will and, more importantly, how it will favorably impact my business," Williams said. "Ive heard a lot of theory, but not nearly enough specific detail about how it will be implemented and its meaning for the desktop."
Blyth agreed, saying Microsoft has not done a good job of selling its .Net vision. While there is always room for improvement in any IT environment, Microsoft has not spelled out how .Net is going to do that, he said.
"My understanding of .Net is probably significantly different to theirs," Blyth said. "But, for me, it needs to be a facilitator that makes my life easier."
While Microsoft must win over customers to its new products, its coming under increasing pressure from Linux, which is making inroads into key business areas. Ballmer acknowledged that Linux has established its position primarily in the ISP (Internet service provider) market with Apache, computer science schools, the unusual embedded device markets and, sporadically, in other server places.
But Microsoft is going to challenge Linux on each of these fronts through a range of unspecified programs, he said. "While we still sell a factor of eight times as many servers, I definitely feel we need to fight back not only in the embedded space, but also in the ISP space, server space and academic space," Ballmer said.
Microsoft is taking note of the Linux approach, which is a "great" way of providing developer support and has led to an environment from which the industry can learn, he said. "The Linux community support model has resonated with people," Ballmer said. The Linux community has also done well in the support of unusual devices, smart devices and embedded devices, he said. "Thats why you see us making the investments we are [making] in support and around the embedded community," Ballmer added.