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Commentary

Microsoft Observations From The Trenches

Despite Microsoft's leadership problems and Windows 8 struggles, there are still huge opportunities for partners and customers.
Eugene Rosenfeld, CTO of Black Blade Associates, a Microsoft partner based in Virginia, told me, "Many of our federal government clients and clients in regulated industries simply cannot move to a shared cloud environment [like Office 365] due to the management requirements of confidential information. This is in spite of advantages afforded by Microsoft's shared cloud offering, like low up-front cost, wealth of features and high service uptime. While virtual private clouds [like Microsoft Azure or Amazon EC2] are still an option for these clients, virtual private clouds do not carry the same economy-of-scale benefits as shared clouds."

-- Slow release cycles. At last year's partner conference, Microsoft introduced an unprecedented volume of new products (Windows 8, Office 2013, Windows Server 2012). This year, there was no new wave of technology. Windows 8.1 and Surface devices took center stage but did not feel significant. Microsoft needs to plan out more frequent release cycles rather than one major hit every few years. The company does intend to remedy this to a certain degree by delivering newer innovation on the cloud platforms first; however, this is not ideal for on-premises customers.

Glass Half Full

On a positive note, most organizations continue to drive a large percentage of their operations on Microsoft platforms. And while Microsoft has eaten the lunch of many competing -- and at times partner -- companies, the reality is that partners and customers in the Microsoft ecosystem have big opportunities.

-- Microsoft platforms are industrial strength. In discussions with global companies over the past few months, it's clear that many organizations are still "betting the bank" on Microsoft technologies. There are the naysayers who hold out for Microsoft's demise, but the continued domination of Microsoft's technologies driving global operations is unprecedented.

In Ballmer's opening statements at Microsoft's partner conference in July, he commented on its unique position to be able to invest billions of dollars into its cloud infrastructure. Few other organizations can make such claims. One partner, Gimmal, headquartered out of Houston, evolved from being primarily an EMC/Documentum partner into a premier Microsoft partner. Mike Alsup, Gimmal's founder and SVP, told me how giant organizations such as Transocean, Marathon Oil and Viacom are relying heavily upon the Microsoft SharePoint platform to store critical documents, records and the associated processes. And while SharePoint relies upon SQL Server, it is safe to say that SQL Server is another example of Microsoft showing its might and continues to serve as an industrial-strength platform for organizations, as does Windows Server.

-- Power BI For Office 365. Microsoft introduced some innovations at its partner conference (e.g. nicer social features, better big data support), but the clear winner was Power BI for Office 365. Power BI -- composed of Power Pivot, PowerView, PowerMap and Power Query -- makes the visualization of data easier and more engaging through graphs, maps and animation. I was not a believer until I experienced how easy it is to configure these tools. The bottom line is that business people can take more decisive actions using the Power BI suite for Office 365.

-- Microsoft Partner Opportunities. Jon Roskill, Microsoft's corporate VP in charge of partner channels, shared some data points at the partner conference. He cited Gartner studies that attribute 41% of budget/investments being held with non-IT executives. Jon's interpretation of this was that the massive Microsoft partner community must learn the language of business and not only "speak IT." Those that do not adapt to this idea will not thrive. When asked about the "Rembrandts in the attic" for the partners, Roskill highlighted that partners can receive approximately $320,000 of partner-specific service and support, training programs, license usage and other such benefits. But few partners fully leverage these resources.

In the end, every IT technology has its advantages and disadvantages and as IT pros, we are charged with the important task of distilling these data points into meaningful actions that will have a positive impact. Microsoft has its good and bad aspects, like any company. Partners and customers should remain skeptical about the half-empty points listed here, but the half-full points are worth pursuing.