Storm Looms for Microsoft

Opinion: It's time for Microsoft to wake up to changes in user needs and expectations.

While much has been said about Microsofts recent corporate reorganization, we would rather turn our attention toward the open, albeit stormy, horizons that await the companys customers, rather than focus on Redmonds deck-chair rearrangements.

The enterprise IT scene when Vista ships next year will differ greatly from the one that greeted Microsofts Windows XP upgrade five years previous. Apples Mac OS X has gone from unproven experiment to established technology leader with imminent availability on Windows-compatible hardware.

/zimages/7/28571.gifeWEEK Labs says that StarOffice 8 is Offices toughest rival yet. Click here to read the review.

Linux has blossomed from rawboned geekdom to become a well-groomed contender with powerful friends. Alternatives to the rich-client desktop have been nourished by abundant bandwidth and innovative programming models to set the stage for the debut of many innovative services. All in all, buyers enjoy far more freedom of choice than they did five years ago.

The strongest wind in Vistas sails may be Office 12. Shown at Microsofts Professional Developers Conference last month, this is the most user-focused upgrade—with the greatest benefits from Microsoft server-side technologies—that the company has produced in years. It could readily displace Office 97, a vigorous competitor against every subsequent release. But while Microsoft developers have been hard at work, other office suites, some of them free, have gained more capabilities and polish.

Microsofts managers must acknowledge the fundamental issues that make many buyers leery of signing on for the next leg of the companys voyage: the worry that Microsofts professed support for open standards is merely a continuation of previous "embrace and extend" policies.

Some public-sector buyers such as the commonwealth of Massachusetts now mandate use of disclosed file formats. Meanwhile, many developing-economy buyers want to strike their own balance between affordable open-source servers for standards-based functions and Microsoft server-side technologies where application synergies are worth their cost. Its not about whether Microsoft is right or wrong, benevolent or evil. Its about the ability of buyers to chart their own courses, not merely buy tickets for a long voyage on the SS Microsoft, destination unknown.

There are actions Microsoft could take with a few clicks of a top execs mouse. It could fully disclose Office document formats and allow their royalty-free use, as Adobe has done with PDF. It could recognize the Mono effort to bring .Net functionality to non-Microsoft platforms as a means to heighten developer interest in the .Net platform itself, resolving to compete on implementation rather than ownership of that framework. It could become a leader in open standards for sender authentication, content distribution and network infrastructure.

Microsofts reorg shows that its top executives can effect change when they perceive the need. We think its time the company wakes up to changes in user needs and expectations and, similarly, makes the strategic changes toward greater openness that are required.

Tell us what you think at

/zimages/7/28571.gifCheck out eWEEK.coms for Microsoft and Windows news, views and analysis.