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Research and Trends - 01 Jan 1999

Microsoft's enterprise agreements, which are targeted at customers with 1000 or more desktops, have some people criticizing the company for anticompetitive licensing practices. Under the enterprise agreements, if customers agree to purchase a set number of additional desktop licenses over a 3-year period, Microsoft will include some of its popular software titles as part of a specially priced BackOffice bundle.

The Software Publishing Association (SPA) and the Project to Promote Competition & Innovation in the Digital Age (ProComp) claim that Microsoft is unfairly leveraging its position as the dominant supplier of OS platforms to squeeze its Office and BackOffice competitors out of the market. SPA disregards the fact that the program is applicable only to about 5 percent of Microsoft's customer base. If customers purchase the bundle, they gain a substantial discount on a variety of applications, from Windows 95/9x to Microsoft Office. Microsoft officials say they're not doing anything unethical and stress that the policy is both procustomer and procompetition.

Microsoft has fought for the ability to offer end-to-end bundling arrangements for its products. By taking issue with Microsoft's program, SPA, champion of the independent software vendor (ISV) community, points to the laziness of the competition. Instead of competing on technical merit and justifying the corresponding price delta, ISVs and the organizations that represent them have resorted to public criticism and litigation as a means to competitive advantage.

This latest attack on Microsoft is a sign to customers that the company's multipronged commoditization strategy of lower prices and bundled solutions is beginning to drive the industry in a proconsumer direction. In the end, Microsoft's efforts will place advanced technology within the average user's reach and force the real innovators to rise to the occasion.

Digital Alpha customers who have agonized over their decisions to purchase Alpha technology can rest easy. Digital Equipment's new parent company, Compaq Computer, recently made announcements that put the finishing touches on the RISC processor architecture's comeback.

Digital's inept marketing once had customers wondering whether the Alpha platform would last on the market. But the Alpha gained new life as a high-end server CPU in Compaq's emerging Departmental Server, Enterprise Server, and Global Server product lines. With several new designs on the table, including a 14-processor GS140 system running at 500MHz (the new EV6 architecture), Compaq seems committed to leveraging its newfound silicon leadership despite the potential for souring Compaq's relationship with Intel.

In fact, Intel's delayed release of its 64-bit CPU (code name Merced) is driving Compaq to embrace the Alpha. Compaq officials say they can't wait for Intel to deliver a viable 64-bit platform. Compaq's strategy is to leverage its CPU architecture against Intel's and differentiate Compaq servers in the crowded server marketplace.

Of course, continued support from the Windows NT design team is a major key to Alpha's success. As long as Microsoft honors its commitment to deliver Alpha versions of Windows 2000 (Win2K--­formerly Windows NT 5.0) and the follow-on 64-bit Windows 2000 Datacenter Server (Datacenter) version in parallel with x86 and Merced versions, Compaq's strategy could pay off handsomely. Company officials are so confident in this tactic that there are plans to introduce 2-way symmet-ric multiprocessing (SMP) Alpha workstations in the first half of this year. Once again, this strategy is good news for customers already committed to the Alpha platform and for designers and developers seeking greater-than-Xeon performance under NT Workstation.

If Compaq positions Alpha as a high-end alternative when x86 technology isn't enough, the company will be in a position to profit as a hardware vendor on the level of Sun or Silicon Graphics. However, for this strategy to succeed, Compaq must be careful not to confuse customers by allowing overlap with its Intel-based platforms. Compaq's commitment to incorporating Alpha EV6 technology into its high-end Tandem host systems product line signals that the company is pursuing such a strategy.

However, if Microsoft waivers in its support for the Alpha, the platform might not survive as an alternative to Intel CPUs. Although Compaq would continue to exploit the chip in support of its UNIX, Tandem, and Open VMS markets, Alpha wouldn't reach the crucial mass necessary to guarantee its longevity. Compaq has put together an impressive strategy for leveraging Alpha technology to differentiate itself from competitors. As a result, Compaq could stake out a lucrative position as a supercomputer vendor.

Leading Windows NT solutions providers such as HP and Data General are embracing the idea of service-level agreements on NT that guarantee a percentage availability, or uptime. Until recently, major service and support organizations have been reluctant to offer such guarantees to their customers who purchase NT solutions. Such vendors have cited instabilities in the OS's architecture and a general mistrust of Microsoft and its maintenance programs (i.e., service packs).

Data General is being particularly aggressive in offering the agreements, including a 99.9 percent availability guarantee in its OMNiiCARE program for its AViiON line of servers. This program includes the dual- and quad-processor AViiON 3650 and 3700 series departmental servers and the AViiON 8600 high-end server. The option is available today with the Data General NT enterprise Total Care Service and Support program.

The perceived stability of NT 4.0 with Service Pack 3 (SP3) makes offering these service-level agreements possible. With Windows 2000 (Win2K--formerly Windows NT 5.0) distracting Microsoft's core developers from their regular maintenance duties, NT 4.0 has become stable. Quick Fix Engineering (QFE) releases have identified and addressed most major problems with NT 4.0 and have thoroughly documented any remaining bugs.

Win2K will have to go through a similar stabilization process (i.e., initial release, followed by several service packs and thorough field testing) before it will merit the same degree of service-level agreement support. This process will leave NT 4.0 as the best-supported Microsoft server platform going into the next millennium.

Although the introduction of service-level agreements to the NT market is positive for enterprise NT users, it leaves IS planners wondering whether to stay on the NT 4.0 platform and take advantage of service-level agreements or take a chance with Win2K, perhaps reaping the rewards of new technology but also exposing the organization to the risks associated with new technologies.

Guaranteed availability contracts are a welcome addition to the NT marketplace. The introduction of service-level agreements will help legitimize NT as an enterprise OS platform.

The Netscape Communicator browser platform might have a bleak future. The browser's market share lead has fallen to just over a point, and nearly 60 percent of enterprise customers say they will use Internet Explorer (IE) in the future.

According to a recent ComputerWorld survey, Netscape still holds a slim lead (49.8 percent vs. 47.5 percent) over Microsoft in overall browser market share; however, 57.5 percent of IS managers who have a budget of more than $1 million and who influence at least 500 employees expect to standardize on Microsoft as their primary browser vendor within the next 12 months.

Microsoft has eroded Netscape's once dominant market share and has taken away Netscape's technology leadership by binding Microsoft's browser technology to the Windows platform. Microsoft has successfully recast key Web standards, such as Dynamic HTML (DHTML), as extensions of the Windows interface.

Microsoft accomplished its thriving browser strategy through a series of developer initiatives and end-user integration programs. The IE 4.0 Shell Update feature demonstrated how Microsoft could leverage Web technology to enhance its flagship Windows OS while providing a tantalizing glimpse of the Windows 98/2000 (Win2K--­formerly Windows NT 5.0) future. With the push toward integrating Web technologies across Microsoft's complete line of developer tools (for information, see "Microsoft Seeks Interface Unification with Forms+"), Microsoft's deftly coordinated IE strategy ultimately overwhelmed its competition.

Although signs of life in Netscape Communicator will persist well into the next quarter, the browser will continue its downward spiral after Microsoft releases Win2K and that OS gains momentum. Netscape will be a nonfactor in the browser technology arena by mid-2000.

This situation simplifies Microsoft's dilemma of whether to embrace the Distributed interNet Architecture (DNA). With Microsoft committed to melding Web and Win32 interfaces through Forms+ and IE 5.0, the job of developing for a mixed-client environment just became easier.

Providing a cohesive unification of both Dynamic HTML (DHTML) and Win32 interface technologies, the forthcoming Forms+ architecture will let developers write to one API without having to concern themselves with the client's presentation platform.

The Forms+ technology is scheduled for release after Windows 2000 (Win2K--­formerly Windows NT 5.0) ships, making the separation of hype from reality difficult. Microsoft is planning to leverage the Web engine in Internet Explorer (IE) 5.0 to deliver a series of DHTML behaviors that let developers embed Web content directly into their Win32 applications. When developers combine these DHTML behaviors with a scripting engine, developers can link the behaviors with the rest of the application's code. This link provides a seamless, integrated user interface (UI) mechanism.

Viewed within the large context of Microsoft's long-term development strategy, Forms+ is an attempt to streamline Microsoft's often disjointed API efforts. With COM+ (the next generation of the component object model--­COM) and Storage+ (a revamped Object Linking and Embedding--­OLE--­database), Forms+ represents the foundation of Microsoft's Distributed interNet Architecture (DNA), the company's ambitious attempt to enhance and extend the Win32 programming model. Microsoft is preparing customers for a DNA-based future.

On the surface, Forms+ makes sense. Microsoft must sort out its UI strategies, and embracing DHTML seems like the logical way to do so. However, a lot of work remains before Microsoft can implement its write-once, run-anywhere strategy. Allowing developers to embed DHTML components into their applications is one thing; eliminating the UI as a programmatic decision that every developer must make is quite another.

In-house developers have the most to gain from Forms+. Programmers struggling to unify disparate projects will happily receive the inevitable onslaught of tools and resources that will accompany the ramp-up toward DNA. In addition, independent software vendors (ISVs) can't wait for Microsoft to trickle-out key API technologies. The need to maintain a reasonable time to market will force these developers to continue juggling two different UI paradigms for the near future.

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