Microsoft Renews Small Business Push - 28 Mar 2006

With the releases of Windows Vista and Microsoft Office 2007 bearing down on us like a comet ready to collide with Earth, it should come as no surprise that Microsoft considers this to be one of the biggest and most potentially lucrative years in the history of the company. Last week, we found out how big: At an event in New York aimed at presenting the business value of these software products, Microsoft revealed that it will spend $500 million marketing Vista and Office 2007.

The marketing push, which Microsoft refers to as its "people-ready" vision, represents Microsoft's biggest-ever attempt to get its business customers excited about upgrading. Based on my experience testing both products, however, the company is facing a tough sell. Neither Vista nor Office 2007 appears to offer anything compelling for businesses. Indeed, both have serious adoption barriers that will likely limit their appeal in this market.

Let's examine why this is the case. In Microsoft marketing parlance, businesses succeed when their employees are empowered to be the best they can be, and the software giant believes it can empower people through better software. The idea is simple: Give people software that lets them be more productive and everyone benefits. But as software gets more and more complex, hiding that complexity becomes ever more difficult. And Vista and Office 2007 are the most complex versions of Windows and Office yet.

Consider Vista. It features a high-end UI that requires correspondingly high-end hardware and rewards customers with a glass-like UI in which it is almost impossible to discern the front-most window from other open windows. Legacy software and hardware compatibility is dreadful. And a new security feature called User Account Protection (UAP), which attempts to make it possible for all users, even administrators, to run with restricted rights, is so painful to use that it's almost comical. You'll quickly find yourself awash in a never-ending sea of dialog boxes asking you to allow certain actions. It's infuriating.

Office 2007 suffers from different problems. Though I applaud Microsoft for creating an inarguably innovative new UI, which drops the menus and toolbars from previous versions, Office 2007 looks cartoonish and fails to rewards the millions of users who are familiar with the way the application suite used to work: Because virtually everything in the UI has changed, experienced users will have to start all over again. Indeed, experienced Office users may actually have an easier time switching to Corel WordPerfect Office X3, Sun Microsystems StarOffice 8, or OpenOffice 2.

To be clear, Office 2007 will indeed make inexperienced users more productive almost immediately because they'll see functionality exposed in new and visual ways. However, it's unclear to me why a Classic Mode UI wasn't included for the rest of us. Shouldn't experienced users be rewarded, not punished?

But back to "people ready." If Vista users are constantly fighting with UAP and using a UI that makes it unclear which window has the focus, and experienced Office users are constantly fighting with the Office 2007 UI, where are all the productivity gains coming from? Microsoft says that these products will make it easier to accomplish specific tasks, such as collaborating with others, and that the biggest gains will be seen in situations in which information workers are interacting with one or more coworkers.

My fear is that these products are usurping personal productivity, which is a known quantity, in favor of collaboration features, which most definitely are not a known quantity. It's still unclear whether the typical information worker--and yes, I hate that term as much as you--will ever use, let alone take advantage of, these features. I'd be happy to be proven wrong, of course. But I have concerns. What do you think?

In last week's Windows IT Pro UPDATE, I wrote that "the R2 version of SBS 2003 adds all the technology from the mainstream Windows Server 2003 R2 release, along with a number of unique additions." This is incorrect. SBS 2003 R2 adds the relevant technologies from the mainstream Windows 2003 R2 release only. However, because many R2 features are enterprise-related, they will not appear in the SBS 2003 R2 release. Sorry for any confusion this might have caused.

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