Saturday, June 15, 2024

Vista and Office in the Enterprise: The Big Tent Looks Tattered

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I consider myself pretty well-versed in the ins and outs of upgrading PCs, having been around them ever since I built my first PC (a Heathkit CP/M machine) back in the 1980s. So when someone like me finally concludes that buying a new Vista machine was a mistake, I have to wonder how many other mere mortals are having the same wishful thought: Oh, to be back on Windows XP.

It’s one thing to have these thoughts as a personal PC user, it’s another if you’re a CIO trying to make a major decision about what operating system you plan to run on thousands of PCs. Because, for now, my problems with Vista – bugs, incompatibilities, obviously hastily thrown-together kludges like the CHKDSK function – are hardly of any consequence to Microsoft.

But if IT and line of business decision-makers decide to forego Vista en masse, there could be some serious consequences. I’m not just talking about Microsoft’s systems software revenues losing out to Linux: this is about much more than just what operating system is on the desktop. Because, if that fence-sitting extends to Office 2007 (which it well could – I have a similar set of problems with the successor to Office 2003), then Microsoft’s plans for dominating the user experience side of the enterprise software market could be in serious jeopardy.

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The problem boils down to the following: Microsoft has a great opportunity in its Office Business Applications, or OBAs, to redirect a tremendous amount of energy and revenue in the enterprise towards using Office – especially Outlook, Excel, and Word – as an interface to ERP systems like SAP, Oracle, Microsoft Dynamics, ad infinitum.

OBAs are Outlook, Excel, or Word interfaces to back-office ERP functionality, and their ascendancy would make Office the user’s entrée into the ERP world instead of a proprietary Windows client or enterprise portal interface. Judging from the initial reaction to the original OBA – the SAP/Microsoft joint product called Duet – and the early indications of interest from customers for the newer, non-SAP OBAs, this is Microsoft’s opportunity to change the face of enterprise software.

And they might even succeed. But until Vista and Office 2007 get their collective act together, it won’t be as easy or straightforward as Microsoft would like.

The problem is that to build the best possible OBA – and who wants to build anything that is suboptimal? – a developer or ISV has to deploy it on a Vista/Office 2007 platform. There are lots of other deployment options – XP and Office 2003 being an important one – but I expect most OBA designers to reach for the stars and target the best platform and user experience possible.

Meanwhile, that combination of Vista and Office 2007 is a potential upgrade nightmare. Just getting Vista and Office 2007 to work well together on a brand new laptop has meant spending several hours trying to tweak this and that feature to meet my real world needs. With little luck: when it comes to Vista and Office 2007, it’s Microsoft’s way or the highway.

Imagine the IT manager contemplating upgrading a few hundred or thousand PCs from XP and Office 2003 to Vista and Office 2007. I don’t imagine that the five or so wasted hours I’ve spent with Vista and Office 2007 would translate directly to an equivalent number of lost hours per corporate PC. But the prospect of debugging – often unsuccessfully – the complex interactions between Vista, Office 2007, and anything else you might be trying to run on a corporate PCs is a helluva good reason to wait and see if things get any better.

Which wouldn’t exactly be good for the growth of Microsoft’s OBA vision. Again, there’s a lot you can do without Vista and Office 2007, but having too many design options isn’t a great way to start off an otherwise great idea.

More importantly, perhaps, this OBA problem underscores the problem Microsoft has building on the natural synergies in its different product lines. Version compatibility and synchronization almost ends up being more important than what you put inside: because when the parts don’t mesh well together, the big tent that Microsoft is trying to pitch over corporate IT looks a little tattered. Which is hardly the image Microsoft had in mind for its big move into enterprise software.

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