Microsoft Targets 'New World Of Work'

Product development focuses on collaboration, search, and remote E-mail access
Microsoft has been talking up a "new world of work" lately, one that is characterized by intercompany collaboration, heavier business regulation, and more foreign outsourcing. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer brought the concept into focus last week by describing some of the software that's required to help workers communicate better and more effectively manage tasks as they work in ad hoc teams formed for specific projects.

The vendor is developing software for team productivity, companywide information searching, and managing E-mail from outside the office that could help make employees more productive while shielding them from information overload, Ballmer told InformationWeek last week. "The real question is, how do you get people tools so they can use the technology well without bring tethered to it? You want people to feel like they always have access to technology, but that they're not tied to it when it's not in use," he said. "There's a real opportunity to innovate. Workers will want it, and CIOs will want to give it to them."

Microsoft is counting on that to help boost sales of its mammoth Office franchise, which generates sales of about $2.7 billion each quarter and enjoys profit margins of 70% but shows little growth. It's positioning Office as a set of tools that can help employees read, edit, and route documents and information that get stored in major business applications. It's also getting ready to release updates to its SQL Server database, BizTalk Server workflow engine, and Visual Studio development tools in early November that could make it easier to work with documents in the XML format.

Ballmer described his company's plans last week to IT professionals and developers attending the company's TechEd conference in Orlando, Fla. Microsoft's belief in a new workplace is influencing the company's product design. For example, the next version of Office, due in 2006, will include software that Microsoft acquired when it bought Groove Networks in March for quickly setting up team workspaces without the need to reconfigure servers. Microsoft also is pushing hard to get new search software to market. "It's a feature we want to give all Windows users" when the next version of the operating system, code-named Longhorn, comes out next year. And Ballmer says Microsoft is "clearly ahead" of Google Inc. in selling software for searching corporate networks, thanks to its Sharepoint Portal Server. "Google's barely started, and we have millions of users," he said.

Tying all of these products together for the new workplace will be a challenge, says Paul DeGroot, an analyst at consulting company Directions on Microsoft. "Microsoft is a product company. But the new world of work isn't about products--it's about processes, workflow, and Web services," he says. "It's a bigger and more complicated picture than what people usually associate with Microsoft."

New products such as the updates to SQL Server, BizTalk Server, and Microsoft's development tools could help Microsoft sell more-complicated systems. Also this fall, the company plans to release updates to its Exchange E-mail server and Windows Mobile software for PDAs and cell phones that would let users get new E-mails as they arrive, instead of waiting for the devices to sync. The company also went live last week with Microsoft Update, a Web site for updates to Windows, Office, Exchange, and SQL Server to help keep those products secure.

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