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3/23/2006
05:24 PM
Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner
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Problems Pile Up For Upcoming Vista, Office Upgrades

Problems continue to pile up for Microsoft as it tries to push out the latest versions of its major products: Windows and Office. Microsoft said earlier this week that it won't ship Windows Vista in time for the winter holiday season. Meanwhile, Office has its own problems. For years, users have complained that Office is too bloated; Microsoft is reacting to those complaints by piling on new features that

Problems continue to pile up for Microsoft as it tries to push out the latest versions of its major products: Windows and Office.

Microsoft said earlier this week that it won't ship Windows Vista in time for the winter holiday season.

Meanwhile, Office has its own problems. For years, users have complained that Office is too bloated; Microsoft is reacting to those complaints by piling on new features that will likely be appealing to only a subset of users.Of the two packages, Vista faces the most problems. Vista has been delayed many times. The current delay may not seem like much of a big deal (what's a couple of months for software that'll have a lifespan of several years?), but it means that Microsoft and its partners will miss pulling in revenues for Vista during the lucrative holiday season.

And that's not the only problem; my colleague Scot Finnie points out some problems with Vista delays that I hadn't anticipated. For one, "businesses, which are unlikely to buy the operating system in big numbers before 2008, get Vista this November, while consumers who tend to buy new PCs at holiday time won't see it until January 2007."

Also, there are six different versions of Vista planned, and that's kind of confusing. Microsoft still hasn't given details on the features of each version of Windows; retailers and IT managers need that information well in advance of shipment, to make business plans.

Similarly, Microsoft still hasn't put out official word on the hardware configuration required to run Vista, making it harder for IT managers, consumers, and retailers to certify systems as Vista-ready.

The situation with regard to Office is less grim. Bill Gates himself is touting Office 2007; he sat down for an interview with InformationWeek recently in which Gates described Office 2007's new features.

Office 2007 does indeed have a lot that will make it compelling for business users. It's strongly focused on collaboration, with a server-based version of Excel and beefed-up SharePoint.

But those same new features that make Office 2007 interesting could also be a turnoff to users. Office has, for years, been too darn bloated, and piling on new features will just add to the bloat. Office is also pricey; it's retailing on Amazon.com right now for $329.

Low-end users and consumers are the ones most likely to balk at the high prices, and those users are the ones least likely to need collaboration and other advanced features. For them, Web-based Office alternatives are starting to emerge. GMail, by Google, provides a simple, basic, Outlook alternative for e-mail; through Google's acquisition of Writely, it now offers a bare-bones word-processor. And other companies provide Web-based project management, calendaring, and other capabilities of the Office suite for the basic user.

Office 2007 is likely to be most attractive to advanced, enterprise users, but even there, it's not a sure thing. Even advanced enterprise users hate software bloat. And Office 2007 has a redesigned user interface, which is going to confuse the heck out of many users, adding to training and help-desk requirements for struggling IT departments.

So is Microsoft doomed? And is that doom foreordained, with no mortal able to alter the software giant's destiny?

Hardly.

Microsoft still has plenty of time to pull off victories here, and there are signs that it just might do so. For starters, it's demonstrating that it's taking the problem seriously; Microsoft recently put Steve Sinofsky, of the office business unit, in charge of Windows. Sinofsky's reputation is as someone who gets things organized, and gets products out on time, and that's just what Microsoft needs.

On the Office front: Microsoft is reacting to Web-based competition by coming out with its own Web-based applications, under the brand "Windows Live." The technology faces its own obstacles, but Microsoft also has many strengths to bring to bear on Web-based applications.

What do you think? Does Microsoft face serious problems with Windows Vista and Office 2007? Can they still pull off victories with those technologies?

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