I had the opportunity yesterday to visit with His Billness and see the latest and greatest Microsoft Office System 2003 launch show in the city. It was held at our default industry stage, the Millennium Broadway hotel and adjoining theater that has hosted numerous events throughout the years that I have been a technology journalist. It had all the trappings of launch parties of the bygone nineties: a Bill Gates multimedia extravaganza, a partner pavilion upstairs in the hotel conference area, breakout meetings with various members of the Microsoft Office product team, a buzzing press room and colleagues flying in from around the world and chattering away in exotic foreign languages in the elevators and in the hallways. The day brought back fond memories when corporations would overspend, overpromise and overhype their products. However, there were a few differences that made it interesting and reminded me that this is truly a new millennium.
First, the Office 2003 launch wasn't exactly a big surprise or a secret. News about the products has been extensively covered, and reviews have appeared over the past month in both trade and general pubs. The beta software -- which came on over a dozen CDs -- was in the hands of more than half a million people during the past year. I have been running the beta in my lab for the past several months as well. What was interesting and perhaps a bit different was that many of the bravest souls using this software actually put it into production and weren't shy to provide glowing testimonials about why they did. I couldn't decide whether this was out of desperation for some of its cooler features or just a tremendous sign of faith in Microsoft products. Or perhaps it was a lack of any real alternatives to run their desktop software applications. Well, as Scott McNealy reminds us, we all do have choices.
Second, the number of partners, ISVs, developers and associated vendors that were displaying their wares in the pavilion upstairs before and after Bill's address were staggering, both in their numbers and in their fervent conviction about their own products. At first blush, this didn't seem all that different. But unlike the go-go days of the last decade, the people at the small booth-lets were, in many cases, ill-prepared to discuss product specifics and go into details. Microsoft's own voluminous press packet lacked any of the press releases of their partners, something that would never be overlooked in the days of yore. That suggests that MS picked its partners at the last moment or that partners didn't have this information until right before the launch party (which contradicts my first point, I know).
Third, no Microsoft executives were harmed in the production of this event. Try as we might, we at VARBusiness could get lots of face time with the product managers, but no one higher up the executive food chain. There is nothing that gets my boss' goat more than a lack of the Big Interview. Granted, we have been spending tons of T&E dollars running around the country meeting Microsoft execs during the past month, but that was last month. Yesterday, the big cheeses just weren't available. My colleague Carolyn April was one of the invited few to hear Bill at his second NYC venue later that day, and you'll have to read her reactions on varbiz.com.
Fourth, Microsoft is usually so good about being on point with its messaging, but they were slipping yesterday. Bill made a big deal about this being the single biggest launch event in Microsoft's history when it comes to the number of products. And he certainly took us through many of the components making up Office as he could, under the guise of the theme of the day -- "Great Moments at Work. " Remember, the last time Microsoft used the "at work" moniker was to launch an integrated fax application in its Office suite some 10 years ago, a complete and dismal failure at that. However, the sheer complexity surrounding the number of different versions of Office and its prices and feature sets is overwhelming. MS could have done a better job delineating this. There are probably over a hundred SKUs when you add it all up.
Bill's presentation was focused on the client side of Office, showing off Word and Excel and Outlook. But where things get interesting is on the server side, and little was said about that. Maybe it is easier to demo client apps than servers. He did make an effort at drawing the connection between servers and client pieces, but it wasn't very satisfying. Maybe we are all getting older and more difficult to please. Maybe it was just me, a self-admitted server-centric kind of guy.
Wait a minute. What does running Office have to do with servers? Plenty. Microsoft is extending the notion of what desktop software is, and with Office 2003 we have applications that can reach out across the Internet for online help, for data via Web services, for document repositories and collaboration via SharePoint, for project management and scheduling information via Project Server, for workflow information via BizTalk, and for automatically filling out forms via InfoPath. And I forgot about Exchange Server 2003 and Outlook 2003, which have their own series of enhancements too.
The key issue for VARs and system integrators -- and IT managers too -- is going to be able to sort out which server works best for which particular application, and how they can get up to speed on deploying these new services and servers to their customers and differentiate themselves with the rest of the hordes rushing to embrace Office 2003. Ironically, it may be the inclusion and support for Web services and the rather good XML features in this version of Office that could tip the balance for many to consider using it, just as they dive deeply into the Microsoft pool and wrap themselves around Redmond's numerous server offerings. Or it could be the quirky $150 million ad campaign that Microsoft is planning on spending during the next few months too.
Many of the partners at the upstairs pavilion showed off some pretty neat add-ons to these servers, and in some cases were using multiple Microsoft servers to demonstrate their wares. But it was all too much to take in. In the old days, Microsoft would have been much sharper about listing which server went with which partner. I had to keep a running scorecard on my own.
Office 2003 is a huge collection of stuff, and sorting it out during the next couple of months will be a big part of my professional life. You'll read more about what others and I have to say in the pages of VARBusiness. In the meantime, if you want to read one of the better analyses of its components, in particular its XML features, check out Jon Udell's review in Infoworld here.
Entire contents copyright 2003 by David Strom, Inc.
David Strom, firstname.lastname@example.org, +1 (516) 562-7151
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