Microsoft's 'big bang' could be its last

A flurry of new products will ship in the coming months, some more than five years in the making. That's too long, Microsoft concedes.

When Microsoft releases its SQL Server 2005 database on Nov. 7, it will have been five years since the last version debuted. If Windows Vista arrives as scheduled next fall, it too will follow its predecessor by five years.

That's a pretty long time to make customers wait for a new release. Too long, concedes Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.

"We just can't make our customers wait three or four years for the things which should have been on more interim cycles," he said at last week's Gartner Symposium/IT Expo in Orlando.

Although many Microsoft products have grown long in the tooth, the company is headed into a cycle that will see a flurry of big releases over the next year and a half. In addition to the new SQL Server, Microsoft is launching a revamp of its Visual Studio developer tools on Nov. 7. Next year will bring new major releases for both of Microsoft's core franchises: Office and Windows.

The company has been touting its coming attractions and is likely to do so further during its earnings report on Thursday. Microsoft is "at the beginning of 12 months of the greatest innovation pipeline we have ever had," Ballmer said.

However, the coming splash of new products could be the last such "big bang" for Microsoft. Many expect the company to offer more measured, but more frequent releases in the coming years.

"I think they have to do this," said Paul DeGroot, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft. "With things like Windows Client, we are now looking at least a five-year product cycle. Man, a lot of stuff has happened in five years."

Ballmer last week outlined a path in which the company tries to make both big and small releases simultaneously, as well as deliver more frequent updates. While he didn't say so explicitly, online services loom as a distinct possibility for the most rapid innovations.

"The key is to make sure that for every line of business, we have the things that pop every six or nine months, pop every couple of years, pop longer than that," Ballmer said.

The company has tried to get more frequent with its server operating system launches. Windows Server 2003 debuted about two years ago, and a fairly modest, but paid, upgrade known as Windows Server 2003 R2 is due by year's end. The next major release, still known by its Longhorn Server code name, is slated for 2007.

Smaller bites
Microsoft has also done more consistent, incremental releases with its Dynamics small-business products, such as Great Plains and Navision. DeGroot sees Microsoft's approach with those products, which Microsoft bought from other companies, as a model.

"I would expect that the company will try to train the market to accept this notion of major and minor releases," he said. "If Microsoft takes smaller bites and makes sure that stuff gets delivered in time with a known feature set--that would be very useful."

The challenge, DeGroot said, is there must be enough new features to make the minor releases compelling. At the same time, if changes come more rapidly, they have to be digestible enough that the costs of training and supporting the new software don't outweigh the benefits.

That so-called "legacy" problem has bedeviled Microsoft for years. Regardless of how frequently the company upgrades its products, it still faces the challenge of encouraging customers to move at all. Even with its comparatively slow pace in recent years, many customers have been slower still to upgrade, with generations-old programs

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