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Lunch with Microsoft

Contrary to popular belief, I do talk to Microsoft.

When I mentioned to my wife that I had lunch with three Microsoft representatives, she quipped, “You dined with the enemy?” It is a popular misconception that, just because I have often been critical of Microsoft, I must consider everyone from the company a pariah. At one time I was blacklisted by the company for a series of critical remarks in my columns. But those days are over. They realize that I’m not anti-Microsoft per se, though I do disagree with many of their business practices. Since they came to this realization, I have had some excellent interviews with representatives of Microsoft over the past couple of years.

The lunch date was no exception. Dining with me at my favorite downtown restaurant (Atlas, because it’s downstairs from our offices and it features many of the delicacies my wife of Persian decent introduced me to) were your standard PR flack, a regional manager, and a technical sales representative. It was a nice mix of folks, from the public face of the company to the back-end guy that gets the job done.

Their purpose was to introduce me to some new initiatives they thought would be of interest to our readers–the new small-business CRM push and the tablet PC, primarily. I thought I would pass this info on to readers and read between the lines a bit on what they said. When Microsoft bought Great Plains Software a while ago, it seemed a logical fit. Great Plains was the only big company left selling enterprise resource planning software in the small- and medium-size business (SMB) market. Microsoft has always specialized in desktop and server software for the SMB market, but never has produced applications for back-end business functions. Purchasing Great Plains allowed it to offer this software much more quickly than it could if it developed it from scratch.

The most notable is a CRM suite that purports to integrate customer data from a variety of sources around the company and deliver needed information to employees in Microsoft Office applications. If it works, it promises to bridge the gap between the front and back ends of SMBs. As I wrote in my June Insights column, something like this is a killer app. It’s still in Beta, so I won’t comment on its quality. But we will be reviewing it in months to come.

I haven’t commented on tablet PCs because, frankly, I thought they were a joke. Why would anyone want to write with lame character recognition when handwriting is practically a lost art in the age of keyboards? I have been using something like a tablet PC at home and my views have softened a bit. The machine I have is from Japan; it’s an ultralight laptop with a touch screen. What I’ve found in using it is there’s no better navigation scheme than touching the screen with a pen.

Still, I wondered about the usefulness of the other tablet functions, at least until the demo I had during the lunch. Tablet PCs are basically laptops that add a few attractive features, such as the ability to sketch, take quick notes, and rotate the screen to display a private message during a meeting. They could reduce paper note taking significantly while enabling users to retain these notes in text or handwritten form. They do all these things without sacrificing the primary input device–the keyboard. All I know is, when it is time for me to upgrade my laptop, I want one that does tablet PC functions.

So far, I’ve just touched on what they said without commenting on the spin they gave the two primary areas we talked about. They seemed very concerned about how open-source software would make their products seem too costly in a tight market. Of course, the meeting came on the day I wrote a column to that effect. Add to that the $99 Palm device just released and their concern is warranted. All trends appear to favor the low end and, rather than responding by lowering their prices, Microsoft has announced ambitious plans to spend billions revamping its flagship products–Office and Windows–to continue to justify the high costs of its software.

When I said that total cost of ownership leveled the playing field somewhat, they seemed unimpressed with my analysis. I really do think the guys in the trenches are worried about selling overpriced software to SMBs. The spin that made the most sense to me is how they tied tablet PCs to the .Net initiative. At first I thought they were pulling a Kevin Bacon on me–tying two things together with six degrees of separation.

But as they explained a few very interesting applications, it all became clear. It has something to do with a variety of vertical applications–medical, warehouse, airline, etc.–that use forms to input data into back-end databases. I have often railed against hospital records and the number of times I have to repeat stuff that should just be on fingerprints of the medical staff.

Well, tablet PCs could enable the paperless clinic. Another application they mentioned is Northwest airline’s pilot manual–a huge paper monster that is updated frequently and lugged around by pilots like a ball and chain. Now all that info is accessible through a few clicks of a tablet PC, which also allows them to do all their paperwork in forms, which were converted from the paper version via Web services. The vertical market applications seem endless. And what I thought of as a lame product now looks to be a growth driver in businesses where PC use requires tablet-style input.

The key to understanding Microsoft is that it’s a huge company with many strong individuals in it. And the structure of the company enables a lot of autonomy for each level of the hierarchy. The result is something like multiple personality disorder. For example, while the chief privacy officer may want to take the lead on enabling P3P in all of Microsoft’s Internet products, the team in charge of Passport may want to collect information on the sly for the sake of Microsoft’s direct-mail subsidiary. Or, while Bill Gates may want the developers to make Microsoft products as secure as the open source competition, the marketing department insists on more features; and for every new feature, there is a potential vulnerability.

So these conflicts make Microsoft seem insincere or, worse, deceitful. But I want to give the honest folks within the company the benefit of the doubt. So I talk with them in a friendly way and try to understand their initiatives with as much charity as I can muster. I won’t pull any punches when one part of the company claims to be abiding by the proposed antitrust settlement while another part withholds code from competitors.

But I will praise the many Microsoft products worthy of high marks. Microsoft is not the enemy. It’s just a very large company with a lot of good developers and a lot of greedy executives.

James Mathewson is editor of ComputerUser magazine and ComputerUser.com

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