Getting Off Microsofts Upgrade Cycle

Software vendor's enterprise users declare they've had enough.

As Microsoft Corp. prepares to release several new software products over the next two years, customers are becoming more frustrated about what they see as the companys obsessive focus on upgrades, rather than on improving existing products.

Customers say they would like to see the Redmond, Wash., company pay more attention to making the products they currently use more secure, stable and reliable. Those canvassed by eWeek are, across the board, less interested in upgrading to new products until the existing ones are fixed.

In addition, if Microsoft is going to continue to add features and functionality, these should focus on making the products more secure and stable, enterprise customers say. Microsoft should also add trouble-shooting features that make the products self-healing and make them available on an a la carte basis, said a technical consultant for a large retailer in Columbus, Ohio, who requested anonymity. "I would love to see the enhancements and upgrades in features be cafe style, in that I have an updated core product that I pick and choose what new features Id like," he said. "Perhaps this is the software-as-a-service model headed our way."

For the near future, however, Microsoft customers can expect to receive new product releases the old-fashioned way: frequently and packed with new features. Microsofts product release road map includes new versions of its Office productivity suite, the Windows client and server, Visual Studio .Net, Exchange, and SQL Server.

Most of these upgrades will be shipped within two years of the previous release and offer a range of new and complex functionality. Office 11, for example, will offer smart documents that let real-time data be pulled into Word documents, while the Windows .Net Server 2003 family will allow the deployment of and support for smart cards for remote access.

But users say more complexity means a more difficult upgrade process every time, as well as added time and costs required to train IT staff.

"I do not need a better user interface—I like the one I have. I need a more stable platform that is more secure. I need less spam and better virus protection. I need better integration with my existing tools," said Bob Duerr, president of Integrated E-com, in Naperville, Ill., which provides CRM (customer relationship management), e-CRM and e-commerce business solutions.

"It all comes back to keeping it simple. I think Microsoft has let the engineers loose a little too long in the china shop," Duerr said.

Microsoft executives have indicated that longer development cycles could be in the cards for some products, a move welcomed by users who say this could give Microsoft enough time to carefully build more useful products.

In a series of interviews with eWeek at the Redmond campus this month, Microsoft executives and product managers defended their focus on product upgrades, maintaining that product innovation was essential to offer ongoing customer value. They said many of the ongoing issues in previous versions have been addressed by service packs, which demonstrate Microsofts continued attention to older product versions.

But many enterprise customers still feel Microsoft is losing focus as it enters a broad range of new markets. Microsoft, some say, is moving away from meeting their needs as it tries to be everything to everyone.

"Perhaps there is actually a physical limit to how much market share a company can control," said Duerr, "before it loses control of itself and starts neglecting the needs of its customers."