Microsoft's 8 Most Popular 'Zombie' Product Lines (and What To Do If Your Customers Want Them)

Beware of these eight undead products: Customers may want them, but their support and future are in doubt.

The story is familiar to many partners. Microsoft rolls out a new product with a lot of energy and enthusiasm. Partners commit a practice to selling the product, investing in training, staff and spending crucial credibility with customers. Then, suddenly, Microsoft pulls the product off the market.

Some products go out in a blaze of glory. The recent Microsoft Kin fiasco, while not strongly impacting business-focused partners, is a prime example of a high-profile flameout. The product was yanked from the market seemingly moments after the teen-oriented device shipped behind a major air cover investment in the form of TV and Web ads.

But other products drift away in a much slower and stealthier fade. In such cases, Microsoft will continue to take orders for the product, and the product Web sites on look completely normal. Buried in the Frequently Asked Questions section, or noted in a related product blog, however, lurks a statement about how future versions and direction are "under evaluation." Meanwhile, rumors may circulate that the entire product team has been laid off or reassigned. This pattern seems to have accelerated a bit in the last year as Microsoft, like everyone else, has moved to weather the recession and competition from all over. These fading products are like zombies: walking dead through the IT landscape, going through the motions of performing a valuable function but having no sense of direction and no upgrade path, and a looming support deadline.

Here are eight zombie products haunting partners today.

Microsoft Office Small Business Accounting
This undead app was spawned back in 2005 to tap into the lucrative small business accounting market, so ably dominated by Intuit with its ubiquitous QuickBooks. A year later, it was renamed Microsoft Office Accounting (MOA) and offered in a free Express Edition and a paid Professional Edition.

MOA provided a small business accounting application with what seemed, at the time, to be a hard-to-beat advantage: integration with apps in the Office suite. The MOA package also came with numerous "strategically informative ways to use and understand financial data," everything from forecasting tools to more than 60 customizable lists and reports -- a fairly innovative attempt to get business intelligence (BI) into a packaged accounting application.

And yet, despite a splashy debut, subsequent discounts and a mail-in rebate program, MOA never made much headway against the established market leaders. Intuit continued to command more than 90 percent of the market; its closest competitor, Peachtree, owned less than 5 percent.

Microsoft officially discontinued distribution of the product on Nov. 16, 2009. In its announcement, Microsoft said: "We continually evaluate our business strategies to make sure we're working to meet the needs of customers, partners and shareholders. With that in mind, we've determined that existing free templates within Office used with Excel were a better option for small businesses."

Microsoft might have killed it, but MOA still walks the earth. The company has promised to continue providing support for the software for five years, and you can still find new copies of even the 2006 edition for sale on the Web.

Microsoft Money
Preceding MOA into the grave was Redmond's personal finance software package, Microsoft Money. It was first released as part of the Microsoft Home product family in the early 1990s, and quickly emerged as a worthy competitor to Intuit Quicken and other desktop financial-management applications.

Microsoft Money attracted a respectable user base over the years, but never neared the market-leading position of Intuit, which the company actually sought to buy in the mid-1990s. In August 2008, Microsoft informed its customers it would stop releasing incremental updates of the product annually; there would be no 2009 version. A year later, the company officially pulled the plug on development of the product.

Explaining its decision, Microsoft said on its "Money Plus" Web site: "The category of personal financial-management software has changed considerably in the 17 years since Money was first established. As more users shift their attention to full-service offerings provided by banks and brokerages, demand for a comprehensive personal finance toolset has declined."

Among those changes was the advent of free, Internet-based competitors, including (recently acquired by Intuit) and the Intuit Quicken Online program, which took the desktop finance software market into territory where Microsoft doesn't have the surest footing.

Moreover, the death of Microsoft Money was seen by industry watchers as part of an overall cost-cutting effort, announced in early 2009, which included a plan to lay off as many as 5,000 employees. A Microsoft spokesperson said at the time that the company was "planning for economic uncertainty." Microsoft has promised to support the still-animated corpse of Money through January 2011, and several editions of Microsoft Money Plus 2008 can still be found shuffling around on online retail sites.

Response Point
Launched in March 2007 amid much fanfare, the Microsoft on-premises, Voice over IP (VoIP)-based private branch exchange (PBX) system was aimed at small businesses that couldn't afford expensive and complex switchboard systems, but who needed that capability. The plan was to make PBXes inexpensive and accessible via the Internet, and Microsoft partnered with several phone makers to distribute the product.

But Response Point was a targeted, niche play that just didn't pan out. During a June 2009 Microsoft Town Hall meeting with VARs, the company revealed that the product had gone into "maintenance mode," and that no future releases were planned. The product is scheduled to join the ranks of the walking dead this year on Aug. 31, when Microsoft will discontinue it officially.

As Microsoft explained in its announcement, "Despite favorable initial response from customers and channel partners since launch, we haven't seen the necessary demand materialize to sustain Response Point as a viable standalone business. To continue to support the needs of the small business community, we expect to consolidate our efforts and offerings in this space around Microsoft Office Communications Server (OCS)."

Current Response Point customers will be able to continue using the product, as Microsoft says, "per their equipment manufacturer purchase agreement." Redmond promises to continue to support its partners and current customers via a special Web site, until Nov. 1, 2011. OEMs are free to continue selling the Response Point phone system until Aug. 31, 2010.

PerformancePoint Server
On June 6, 2006, Microsoft unveiled a new business process management (BPM) product that pulled together several existing products, including its Business Scorecard Manager, components from its Dynamics product line and the then-newly acquired analytics tools from ProClarity. Dubbed PerformancePoint Server, it provided a number of features, including dashboards, scorecards, key performance indicators, reports, filters and strategy maps, all delivered via a monitoring server.

The product was released in September 2007, and industry watchers noted Microsoft was entering a maturing market late -- perhaps too late to catch up with BPM offerings from IBM Corp., Oracle Corp., SAP AG and SAS Institute Inc., not to mention products from BI and ERP vendors. But they also expected Microsoft to do what it does: stick with the product, refining versions until it gained market traction.

But a down economy and a customer base that, as Microsoft put it, "needs to do more with less," caused the company to kill the standalone product in April 2009, and then quickly resurrect several of its features in SharePoint 2010 as PerformancePoint Services for SharePoint. Those features included the scorecard, dashboard and analytic functionality.

"Our decision is based on wanting customers to truly experience pervasive BI in their organization at a low cost through the tools they use every day," Kurt DelBene, senior vice president of the Microsoft Office Business Platform Group, said at the time. "In today's economic climate, having the most pertinent information available, allowing you to clearly view the health of your organization, is imperative. We want to give what customers need in a way that makes sense for their business -- through the widely adopted Office SharePoint Server, the planning and analysis tool Microsoft Office Excel, and the highly scalable Microsoft SQL Server."

Windows Live OneCare
Introduced in 2006, Windows Live OneCare was the Microsoft all-in-one security package aimed at the home PC user. Offered on a subscription basis, it provided a combination of anti-virus software, a firewall, back-up and restore utilities, a tune-up utility and malware protection.

Live OneCare stirred up the market for a while, seemingly scaring the pants off competitors. (Symantec then-CEO John Thompson threw snarky barbs about the product's pricing.) But they shouldn't have worried: OneCare never really won a significant share of the consumer PC security market.

Microsoft announced its plans to pull the plug on Windows Live OneCare in November 2008, but didn't discontinue sales of the standalone product until June 30, 2009. The company essentially replaced Live OneCare with Microsoft Security Essentials, a free, downloadable anti-malware program with no back-up or tune-up utilities included.

Amy Barzdukas, senior director of product management for the Microsoft Online Services and Windows Division, said in a statement at the time: "Customers around the world have told us they need comprehensive, ongoing protection from new and existing threats, and we take that concern seriously. This new, no-cost offering will give us the ability to protect an even greater number of consumers, especially in markets where the growth of new PC purchases is outpaced only by the growth of malware."

Microsoft has promised to continue supporting the users of this undead software through the terms of their subscriptions. But Redmond hasn't optimized the product for the Windows 7 OS or Windows XP mode in Windows 7.

Windows Essential Business Server
Microsoft Windows Essential Business Server (Windows EBS) was designed to provide an IT infrastructure for midsize businesses. The product was built from the Windows Server 2008 code base, and included three licenses of the OS plus Exchange Server 2007, System Center Essentials 2007, Forefront Security for Exchange Server and Forefront Threat Management Gateway (Medium Business Edition). The Premium Edition added another Windows Server 2008 Standard Edition license and the Microsoft SQL Server 2008 Standard database software.

Microsoft released version 2008 of the product, but would never release version 2010. The company cited lack of demand, but also a market shift within that midsize business segment to cloud-based management and virtualization. Windows EBS seemed to be offering a solution to a market segment that didn't need one.

In a March 2010 blog entry, the Windows EBS team wrote: "Since the launch of EBS, several changes have occurred that drove our decision to streamline our server product portfolio. First, midsize businesses are rapidly turning to technologies such as management, virtualization and cloud computing as a means to cut costs, improve efficiency and increase competitiveness. Those capabilities are already available through other offerings, including Windows Server 2008 R2, Microsoft System Center and the Microsoft Business Productivity Online Suite."

Microsoft announced it would discontinue development of Windows EBS as of June 30, 2010, and that it would no longer be available for purchase as of July 1, 2010.

The blog went on to announce a "limited offer" for current Windows EBS 2008 customers, who, from June 30, 2010 through Dec. 31, 2010, would be able to get the individual component software from the Windows EBS 2008 suite for free (plus local taxes and shipping and handling charges).

The company promised that the death of Windows EBS would not "impact any other Windows Server products and solutions, including the next version of Windows Small Business Server (SBS)."

Microsoft acquired Groove Networks in 2005 to add Groove founder Ray Ozzie's vision for a shared workspace to the product lineup, although the acquisition was widely perceived as Bill Gates' way to finally bring Ozzie himself on board after years of trying to reel in the inventor of the original Lotus Notes. The technology, originally billed as Microsoft Groove, evolved into Groove 2007 -- which was available as a standalone product and was included in Office 2007 (Ultimate and Enterprise Editions) -- and then Office Live Groove 2007, which was an annual subscription-based version of the software.

"Groove technology fills holes in the Microsoft product offerings," Forrester Research Inc. Senior Analyst Erica Rugullies said at the time of the acquisition. "The current Microsoft collaboration products -- specifically Windows SharePoint Services, SharePoint Portal Server, Microsoft Office and Windows -- are not good for cross-firewall collaboration, or for enabling a seamless online-offline experience. That's where Groove excels."

Rugullies added that Groove would bring hundreds of enterprise customers to Microsoft -- customers with serious expertise in collaboration, including inter-enterprise collaboration. "This gives Microsoft a quick crash course with customers who've done this in real environments," she said, "who understand what some of the requirements are and what works and what doesn't. The Microsoft customer base, when it comes to collaboration -- specifically around team collaboration -- has been very much internally focused."

The life of Groove as a standalone product ended in May 2009, when Microsoft announced that it would be folding the technology into the recently released SharePoint 2010 platform. The renamed SharePoint Workspaces would enable users "to take SharePoint sites offline and work with the content on people's desktops, whether or not they're connected," a spokesperson said at the time.

Microsoft Commerce Server
Among the undead apps wandering the infosphere today, few are as popular as Microsoft Commerce Server. The smart line of products began with the company's original e-commerce offering, Site Server. That product was followed by Commerce Server 2000, Commerce Server 2002, Feature Pack 1 and Commerce Server 2007.

Commerce Server 2007 upped Redmond's e-commerce game significantly by integrating business processes and disparate systems, which made it easier for enterprises to create robust, end-to-end "connected commerce" solutions. This version also shipped with a production-ready Web application that took full advantage of the 2.0 version of the Microsoft .NET Framework.

Last year, Microsoft released Commerce Server 2009, which shifted gears slightly, citing "changing online business models and the rise of Software as a Service, Web 2.0, service-oriented architecture and other new media technologies." Microsoft Commerce Server 2009 also integrates with Microsoft SharePoint 2010 through a Template Pack, which is available now.

What makes Commerce Server something of a zombie product is the 2007 decision by Microsoft to outsource development of the product. While it's listed on the Microsoft product list, Redmond has a joint development arrangement with the Gatineau, Quebec, Canada-based Gold Certified Partner Cactus Commerce.

As Cactus describes the August 2007 agreement, Cactus is "the joint development partner for Microsoft Commerce Server, including collaboration on product engineering, partner ecosystem development, marketing, pre-sales, services and support. The long-term strategic partnership reinforces continued focus, investment and commitment to lead innovation for the e-commerce marketplace on a global scale. Together, as part of a long-term technology roadmap, Cactus Commerce will partner with Microsoft to deliver platform enhancements and complementary solution accelerators focused on technology and industry deployment scenarios."

The 2009 release is the first version delivered under the agreement; it's a major Microsoft product that isn't primarily developed by the 80,000-or-so employees of Microsoft.

What's a Partner to Do About a Zombie?
Harry Brelsford, one of the biggest outside evangelists of SBS, was also an early advocate of the Response Point system. As president of the SMB Nation community and conference series, he shares his own observations.

"It's frustrating when Microsoft does that," Brelsford says mildly. "Now, that said, it's highly unlikely my people are going to be leaving Microsoft. Microsoft is kind of too big to fail. It's like when GM shut down Saturn. It's hard on the dealers. It's highly unlikely [SMB Nation community members] are going to be leaving Microsoft. You're not going to give up your dealership because GM pulled a line," Brelsford adds.

So what's a partner to do when a product becomes a zombie?

Brelsford says the Response Point angle gives an example. Although Microsoft is encouraging partners to move to OCS for VoIP, those partners who committed to Response Point are now playing the field.

"Microsoft has exposed itself to competition on VoIP with the decision to shut down Response Point," he says. "Cisco is pretty interested in talking to my crowd, and other vendors are starting to move in."


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