In between, Microsoft's hard-charging CEO gave a preview of features coming in the eagerly anticipated next version of Windows and disclosed an upcoming press conference with Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy, injecting some vigor into the sometimes dry topic of systems-management software.
"I was a no-show" last year, Ballmer said, explaining that a meeting with European Union commissioner Mario Monti to iron out the EU's antitrust fine of the company canceled his scheduled keynote address at the conference. "The only feedback we got last year [from the conference] was, 'Where's Ballmer?'" he said.
In contrast, Ballmer seemed back in force this year, walking through a series of technology demonstrations meant to counter what he said were industry analysts' charges that Microsoft's systems management plan is "fluffy."
First the dry part: Microsoft is developing technology called the "system definition model" that will let programmers working with the company's Visual Studio 2005 Team System development tools, due by the end of the year, create a "management model" of software apps at development time that other systems can understand. Then came the demos. With the help of three Microsoft staffers, Ballmer showed how the next version of Windows, code-named Longhorn, will broadcast an XML "health model" that apps like SQL Server can read to generate reports about how a company's PCs are performing. Then he showed how Microsoft's management tools could upgrade 100 PCs in 10 minutes--admittedly quicker than it would take most shops to perform that task.
There's also better interoperability between Windows and Sun servers coming, first in the R2 release of Windows 2003 Server, due later this year. "We've worked closely with Sun--yes, that Sun," Ballmer said, as he liberated two cooling fans from a Sun computer while an aide egged him on. "A year ago, I would have felt differently about this," he added. Ballmer said he and McNealy would give a "state of the union" report in about two weeks covering the companies' joint technical work since Microsoft a year ago settled Sun's antitrust lawsuits. Meanwhile, the staffer used Microsoft Operations Manager software and a Web-services-management protocol co-developed with Sun to shut the offending computer down before it overheated.
Ballmer also gave a sneak peek at Windows Longhorn, due next year, which the company will discuss in more detail at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference in Seattle next week. "Longhorn's been a long time in the making"--longer than Microsoft planned, he said. The operating system will include a new quarantine feature that lets IT workers cordon off PCs and laptops trying to access a company's network over the Internet until they can be authorized. Microsoft said Wednesday it would support a quarantine specification from the Trusted Computing Group consortium, which includes Dell, Hewlett-Packard, McAfee, and Symantec, for that feature. Said Ballmer, "Security has been a major cost driver" for customers.
Longhorn, he said, is meant to be the operating-system technology that will take Microsoft a decade into the future and will emphasize searching for information, 64-bit operation, and easier management. Longhorn server software is scheduled to come out six months after the client version arrives.