It was a big week in the consumer space for Microsoft, with announcements ranging from a new Zune HD device to technology for Ford’s upcoming line of electric vehicles.
On March 31, Microsoft and Ford helped open the New York International Auto Show by announcing a partnership that will allow owners of the Detroit auto maker’s future electric cars to leverage Microsoft Hohm, a cloud-based energy-management tool, in order to determine the optimal times and places to plug in their vehicles. Ford plans to “electrify our platforms” over the next few years, according to CEO Alan Mulally, who told the audience assembled in Manhattan’s massive Jacob K. Javits Center that his company will release five new hybrid vehicles into the market by 2012.
In addition to using Hohm for electric vehicles starting sometime in 2011, Ford has also integrated the Microsoft-designed SmartGuide with EcoGuide into its upcoming Lincoln MKZ Hybrid, allowing drivers to determine (and, presumably, adjust) the long-term fuel efficiency of their vehicles.
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer appeared via giant video screen during the press conference to talk about Hohm, including how it apparently saves customers an “average of 10 percent” on their utility bills. He also cited how the use of Hohm within the context of electric vehicles would provide tangible benefits not only for consumers, who would save money by charging their cars during off-peak hours, but also utility companies, which could use the aggregated data from users to best determine how to adjust the power grid to handle ramped-up demand.
Hohm’s analytics are licensed from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the Department of Energy. The software, accessible through any Web browser, asks users to input their e-mail and postal code, followed by a series of questions meant to paint an accurate picture of their home energy expenditures (“What type of energy does your water heater use?” is an example). Based on that data, Hohm then offers recommendations designed to save money and power, along with an estimated cost breakdown. Microsoft has also signed deals with utility companies to use the data from Hohm to make power transmission more efficient.
Released in July 2009, Hohm joins the Environmental Sustainability Dashboard for Microsoft Dynamics AX as part of the company’s larger green IT initiatives. Microsoft’s competition in that particular area includes Google’s PowerMeter software tool, which measures home energy consumption using “smart” metering devices installed by utilities.
On the smaller side of things, Microsoft announced a Zune HD 64GB, slated to arrive on its ZuneOriginals.com Website April 12. Retailing for $349.99, the device joins the Zune HD 16GB and Zune HD 32GB-whose prices have been lowered by $20 to $199.99 and $269.99-in Microsoft’s line of portable media devices meant to compete with Apple’s iPod franchise. Microsoft plans on pushing out a Zune firmware update, labeled 4.5, with features such as Smart DJ and expanded video codec support. Although the Zune HD device lags in market share behind the iPod, the porting of Zune software onto Windows Phone 7 Series devices by the end of the year opens the door to the company gaining some traction in that arena.
Microsoft Extends Windows 7 Enterprise Trial Program
While Microsoft has enjoyed some positive signs on the consumer side of things as of late-according to a recent report from Forrester Research, around 86 percent of surveyed Windows 7 users said that they are satisfied with the operating system-there are still signs that businesses are slow to adopt Windows 7, its flagship product.
On March 30, Microsoft announced that it will extend its Windows 7 Enterprise Trial program to Dec. 31, 2010, due to what an official blog post termed “popular demand.” The 90-day trial edition of Windows 7 Enterprise is offered in both 32- and 64-bit versions, and is intended to assist IT administrators in testing applications and deployment strategies. In September 2009, Microsoft claimed that the program would only extend to “a limited number of licenses” and continue “while supplies last.”
Those who install the product have 10 days to active it; after the 90-day testing period has concluded, the operating system is coded to shut down every hour. Users who wish to upgrade to the full version of Windows 7 Enterprise will then need to perform a clean install.
But the news that Microsoft will extend the program follows reports from January through March that the company was seeing a slow uptake of Windows 7 by businesses, despite claims that some 90 million licenses for the operating system had been sold since its October 2009 release. During a Morgan Stanley investor conference on March 2, Microsoft Chief Financial Officer Peter Klein told the audience that an enterprise tech-refresh cycle, following the worst economic downturn in generations, was still some time away.
“There will be an enterprise refresh cycle,” Klein said. “It’s not precisely certain when that will happen or how fast that will happen, but we expect it to happen this calendar year and go into next calendar year, and that will be a really good catalyst for growth for our PC business.”
During a Jan. 28 earnings call, Klein remarked to media and analysts that Microsoft had “not seen a return to enterprise software growth.”
His comments were echoed at the time by Bill Koefoed, Microsoft’s general manager of investor relations, who said that “weak business PC sales” were hampering the company’s enterprise software business. “Conditions from last quarter remain unchanged,” he added, with regard to business IT spending.
Those reports of weak enterprise and SMB (small to midsize-business) sales suggest that Microsoft’s latest offer for its Windows 7 Enterprise Trial Program might be driven by a need to expand that particular market. A January study by analytics company Net Applications found that decade-old Windows XP occupied some 66.15 percent of the U.S. operating system market, compared with 7.57 percent for Windows 7 and 17.47 percent for Windows Vista.
Whether or not Windows 7 gains more short-term traction among businesses, Microsoft can at least assure itself that the operating system is far more commercially successful than Microsoft Bob, the now-defunct operating system that marked its 15-year anniversary on March 31. Intended as an easy-to-use desktop interface for technology neophytes, Bob turned programs into furniture icons scattered around cartoonish-looking “rooms.” However, high hardware requirements and poor advance reviews helped doom Bob, which was shut down by 1996, around a year after its release.
At the very least, Microsoft may have learned some lessons about the consumer market from that.