On Deck: The Microsoft Roadmap

Microsoft is ready to unveil some heavy-hitting products in '06.

In 2006, Microsoft will be like a baseball team coming to the heart of its batting order. Having sent SQL Server to the plate in November 2005, Microsoft will bring new versions of Windows and Office out in 2006. The following year will bring a new version of Exchange server and Windows server. In other words, between November 2005 and sometime in 2007, all five of Microsoft's products that generate more than $1 billion a year each in revenue for the company will be out in new versions.

No wonder Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has been bragging about Microsoft's "pipeline" for months now. Indeed, to mark Microsoft's 30th anniversary last fall, company materials noted that over the next 18 months, Microsoft will deliver twice the number of new products and services that it delivered during the past three years combined.

Just hanging on should be a white-knuckle affair for partners. Microsoft is a product-centric company, and to be successful in the company's wake, you've got to be aware of, and ready to sell, new products. In that light, this list will help you make sure you've got your eye on all the relevant products for 2006, and help you hit some of these opportunities out of the park.

Windows Vista
Windows Vista, Microsoft's next desktop operating system, will dominate the roadmap, and the IT news, for 2006. But Vista won't arrive until near the end of the year. Windows Vista will feature an updated user interface called Aero Glass; a much more effective and integrated desktop search; fundamentally new ways of organizing files and folders; another security overhaul; and deep changes to the way developers interact with the operating system. Timing will be a key: Driving the schedule, and driving it hard, is the consumer holiday shopping season.

"Vista needs to release to manufacturing by the end of the third quarter at the latest." -- Rob Enderle, Principal Analyst, Enderle Group

"It needs to release to manufacturing by the end of the third quarter at the latest," says Rob Enderle, principal analyst with the Enderle Group in San Jose, Calif. "Right now [the Vista RTM is] on track for the end of August. Every indication is they will move heaven and earth to make this date. Fourth quarter sales for much of the industry depend on this, and they [Microsoft] know it."

Asked for odds, Enderle, who has been following Windows ship schedules for years, puts Microsoft's chances at about 7-to-3: "I think they'll make it. The cost of missing is simply too high."

Windows Vista Unit Shipment Projections
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Another longtime Microsoft observer, Al Gillen, system software research director for IDC in Framingham, Mass., agrees that Microsoft will probably ship on time. He gives the RTM a hard deadline of early October to give OEMs enough time to put systems on store shelves by November and December. All of which is very interesting if you're Dell, Gateway, HP, Intel, Lenovo or otherwise concerned with consumer purchases. For those whose focus is business customers, Windows Vista deployments will largely be a concern for 2007. "Professional-grade product will probably go to market in parallel, but uptake on the Pro product will get off to a slower start, as is typical for Windows," Gillen says. (See the chart, "Windows Vista Unit Shipment Projections")

Microsoft Office 12
Set for release at roughly the same time as Windows Vista is Office "12" [Since the publication of this article, Microsoft announced the official name of Office "12" as Office 2007. - Ed.] Any release of Office, Microsoft's biggest cash cow after the Windows client, is sure to get a heavy dose of promotion. Add the most extensive redesign of the user interface in a decade, and you're guaranteed a significant release. Again, like Windows Vista, the Office release is more likely to have a big impact on business in 2007.

Something Microsoft is doing with Office earlier in 2006 bears watching by partners who cater to small businesses. Microsoft is starting an invitation-only beta program called Office Live. The program offers small businesses a domain name, a Web site with 30MB of storage and five Web e-mail accounts through a free, ad-supported model. It's one of Microsoft's first experiments with offering one of its dominant desktop products online as a service without a hefty up-front cost for the user. The business model will have implications for small business partners if it succeeds and Microsoft expands on it. (See our cover story on Microsoft's Software as a Service push)

Other 2006 Releases
In addition to preparing for Vista and Office, partners will have a number of lesser Microsoft products to evaluate and integrate earlier in 2006. Commerce Server, once rumored dead, rides again with a 2006 version. Already advanced in the beta process, Commerce Server 2006 is supposed to ship early this year. The product got the .NET/Web services treatment, meaning core subsystems will be Web-service enabled. Another major new feature is Web-based self-service for customers and partners. Commerce Server 2006 is also supposed to connect more tightly to business information in SAP, J.D. Edwards and other corporate systems through integration with BizTalk Server 2006.

Speaking of BizTalk, it's another early 2006 deliverable for Microsoft. BizTalk 2006 launched simultaneously with SQL Server 2005 and Visual Studio 2005 in November 2005, but unlike those two products, BizTalk wasn't actually ready. In the 2006 release, Microsoft put its development team to work making the product easier and faster to install, configure and manage. Microsoft also expanded the default set of adapters to cover nine common enterprise applications.

Shifting gears from the enterprise to small business, Microsoft will roll out Windows Server 2003 Small Business Server R2 soon. (See the Product Spotlight)

Those of you who understood Software Assurance (there were some, right?) can look forward to a new learning curve in 2006, but you can expect a lot more value as well. This spring, Microsoft is introducing what it bills as Software Assurance 2.0. The company is adding about a half dozen benefits to the volume licensing program, including three pieces of exclusive software. Some new benefits of SA will come back to partners in the form of customer vouchers that can be used to engage partner services, so it's vital for partners to understand the changes. Those partner-delivered SA benefits include training, desktop deployment planning services and Information Worker desktop services. The new software, exclusive to SA customers, includes a Software Assurance-only version of Vista called Windows Vista Enterprise Edition, integrated virtualization software called Virtual PC Express and "Eiger." The Eiger code-name refers to Windows Fundamentals for Legacy PCs, an OS based on Windows XP Embedded that's supposed to provide a bridge for PCs too old to run XP or Vista.

Sometime after the new SA benefits kick in, Microsoft will also release a new version of Internet Explorer 7.0 for XP Service Pack 2 and Windows Server 2003. This version was a surprise -- Microsoft hadn't planned to release a version of IE apart from the next operating system, but then Microsoft hadn't anticipated several new security threats or the popularity of Firefox, either. The new version won't have all the browser features scheduled for Vista, but enhanced security and tabbed browsing are planned.

Delving into new territory, Microsoft plans to release Windows Compute Cluster Server, based on Windows Server 2003 R2, this year. Microsoft's designs on clustered computing are less ambitious computationally than Linux clusters, which own the scientific supercomputing field, but potentially more massive on the revenue side. Microsoft envisions small clusters of 16 or fewer nodes handling large, but not enormous, computing jobs in departmental data centers or even in midsized businesses. Planning and installing such nodes could potentially be a specialty for Microsoft partners if the concept catches on with customers.

One other notable infrastructure deliverable this year will be Windows Server 2003 Service Pack 2. Microsoft recently committed to shipping an SP2 in the second half of the year. At the same time, Microsoft warned customers not to expect an SP3 for XP until the second half of 2007.

Microsoft Dynamics
All of those product launches don't touch on one of Microsoft's most ambitious areas for 2006 -- the rebranding of the Microsoft Business Solutions finance, accounting and customer relationship management software into the Microsoft Dynamics family. The company announced this process in September 2005 and got it underway a few months later. Already generally available are Microsoft Dynamics GP 9.0, which was formerly Microsoft Dynamics Great Plains; Microsoft Dynamics CRM 3.0; and Microsoft Dynamics SL 6.5 (formerly Solomon). All shipped late enough in the year that the bulk of their rollout is occurring in the first half of 2006. With some of those products, certain language versions are continuing to dribble out well into 2006.

Microsoft Dynamics and Product Roadmaps
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Later this month, Microsoft will provide a lot more detail on the Microsoft Dynamics roadmap at the Microsoft Convergence Conference. Through the rest of 2006, the Microsoft Business Solutions division has two more products to re-release as Microsoft Dynamics. The company will turn Axapta into Microsoft Dynamics AX and Navision into Microsoft Dynamics NAV.

Once all the products are relaunched under the Dynamics brand, Microsoft's plans call for a more severe "wave 2," which will consolidate the diverse finance and accounting products the company collected through acquisition into a single product. The best features of Dynamics GP, SL, AX and NAV will merge into one larger product, with job roles, rather than product version, determining what functionality is turned on. While Microsoft Dynamics ERP is floating around, the ├╝ber-product doesn't have a formal name yet. This all assumes it doesn't go the way of Microsoft's ill-fated Jupiter initiative to combine BizTalk, Commerce and Content Management servers. In any case, current plans are for Microsoft Dynamics CRM to continue to stand alone.

Back to 2006, or more probably to 2007, one of the key product releases will be Exchange. In a market bulletin in December, Microsoft said Exchange 12 could ship in late 2006 or early 2007. With the code-name "12," just like for Office, this version is loosely pegged to the Outlook e-mail client. Microsoft has big plans to expand Exchange in a couple of ways with the E12 version. One is unified messaging, making e-mail, voice mail and faxes accessible from one inbox. Another is Outlook Voice Access (OVA) for checking e-mail, calendar and other items remotely via voice-activated options over a telephone.

Windows Longhorn Server and 2007
While analysts we talked to were fairly confident Vista would ship on time, the view from Vista is hazy. Microsoft says Windows "Longhorn" Server will ship in 2007. Developed from the same code as Vista, Longhorn has a chance of making that broad ship target. On the other hand, rewinding to 2001 -- Whistler server (Windows Server 2003) was supposed to ship a few months after XP. It took about a year and a half. Granted, the Trustworthy Computing initiative wedged itself between the two operating systems, but that's the problem exactly: things happen.

When Longhorn does ship, it promises to bring interesting changes to Windows. One of the most compelling is the concept of a "Server Core." For a few years, Microsoft has been talking about providing options for administrators to lock down servers by role to reduce service requirements, management requirements, attack surface and disk space. The Server Core is a minimal installation option that runs entirely out of a command line: Think Windows without the Windows or the Explorer shell. Plans are far from finalized, but some of the infrastructural roles Microsoft has in mind for the Server Core are a DHCP server, file server or DNS server.

Other items loosely on the drawing board for 2007 include Systems Management Server version 4, a Windows "Longhorn" Small Business Server and "Centro," a Windows Server System package for midsized businesses also based on Longhorn.

There's one other item worth mentioning. Remember Windows "Blackcomb," the code-name for a far-off version of Windows that Microsoft has been kicking around since 2000 or so? It's not going to happen. The Blackcomb code-name is officially retired in favor of "Vienna," returning to one of Microsoft's favorite OS code-name themes: cities (also see Chicago and Cairo).