Microsoft Should Make Servers Compelling

Opinion: The market might greet Office 12 with a yawn, but the software giant could boost sales by making users want its new servers.

What do you sell when you cant sell applications anymore? You sell servers and hope that if the servers are interesting enough, customers will buy new versions of applications as well. If everything works out, you have new servers to sell and youre back in the applications business again, at least temporarily.

That is the situation Microsoft finds itself in these days. Given a choice, the users I know would just as soon sleep through Office 12, and 13, and 14… They dont really need new features, or have given up on Microsoft ever adding the ones they want. In this circumstance, news that 2006 will bring us a new Office release is almost hypnotic.

That isnt to say we are forever done with desktop applications. But, if Microsoft wants customers to upgrade, they are going to have to do something very big and very convincing. So, along with Office 12 and Windows Vista weve been told to expect a passel of new servers, though not all at once.

Microsoft, however, has trouble selling servers unless customers are convinced they positively, absolutely must buy or chaos will ensue. These include Exchange and SQL Server. After that, most people have a hard time naming the other servers that Microsoft sells.

This is because Microsoft sells servers to IT departments, not to the users who benefit from having whatever it is the server offers. Microsoft also sells servers that typically require a fair amount of custom work or at least some administration to get working properly.

I am leery of Microsofts announcements that the Office 12 servers will focus on "Business Intelligence," which sounds like something the big bosses love and the worker bees will come to loathe as overzealous execs put their newfound "intelligence" to work.

/zimages/4/28571.gifClick here to read more about business intelligence in Microsofts next generation of servers.

Rather than look only to IT departments for sales, Microsoft needs to develop servers it can sell to users, or at least servers with such compelling benefit that users demand their IT department install and support them. Better, Microsoft could sell entry-level servers that users could "sneak" onto the network by running it on a spare PC in their workgroup.

Yes, I know this makes IT departments absolutely wild, but I think it would be a good way to provide services to small groups, managed by the group itself.

Microsoft could sell an enterprise management console for these servers and even allow IT departments to virtualize multiple workgroup servers on a single machine, though this would be a migration path rather than an initial deployment strategy.

The ideal "server for the people," besides being right-now useful, would be able to harness the power of an older PC to help make better use of the hardware customers already own. Microsofts hardware OEMs could also sell standalone network appliances or other ready-to-run hardware to implement these services.

This moment is also an opportunity for software-as-a-service to rear its head, though the per-seat pricing necessary to support a hosted workgroup service might be prohibitive for many potential customers.

I wont propose what types of servers Microsoft might develop for this channel, except to say that workgroup productivity would top my list. A collection of small servers that serve departments and could be connected to one another as necessary, might be an excellent way to convince customers to buy Grooves pioneering peer-to-peer technology, which Microsoft now owns.

The key here is for Microsoft to learn to sell servers to users the same way it sells applications. Give users something that solves real problems and Office 12 will take care of itself.

Contributing editor David Coursey has spent two decades writing about hardware, software and communications for business customers. He can be reached at

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