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Ballmer: IT enthusiasm 'in growth phase'

At TechEd customer conference, Microsoft's CEO delivers a pitch that's part call to action, part career affirmation for IT workers.

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Steve Ballmer has a message for technology managers: We feel your pain.

Microsoft's CEO addressed nearly 11,000 technology professionals on Monday at the company's TechEd customer conference with a pitch that was part call to action, part career affirmation for IT workers. He said IT enthusiasm is in a "growth phase."

"There has never been a more interesting time to be in the information technology industry than right now," Ballmer said, in an attempt to assure attendees that they made the right career move. "I guarantee that the impact of the IT industry will be (greater) in the next 10 years than over the last 10."

Ballmer's message highlighted productivity and potential over product features. He touted the company's latest tools for making developers and administrators more effective.

He announced a new service for automatically updating patches for several Microsoft products will be available in July. The services, called Windows Server Update Services and Microsoft Update, will use a single "update catalog" to provide regular updates for both consumer and business customers, Ballmer said.

This week, Microsoft is expected to say that its SQL Server 2005 database and Visual Studio 2005 programming tool will be available in the fall. The launch of the two development products, which will be released in tandem, has been delayed numerous times.

Ballmer touched on four themes during the keynote address: "new work scenarios" made possible by better mobile software; lowering the cost of IT operations; Microsoft's advances in improving security; and applications platforms, including planned updates to Microsoft's tools and server-infrastructure software.

At TechEd, Microsoft will try to demonstrate that it understands IT professionals' problems and that the company's point of differentiation from competitors is a focus on the individual.

In a demonstration of how work can change with more sophisticated software, Microsoft executives showed off a forthcoming product that will allow an Exchange network administrator to remotely manage information on handheld devices loaded with Windows.

The two products, called Direct Mobile Messaging for Exchange 2003 Service Pack 2, and Messaging and Security Feature Pack for Windows Mobile 5, allow administrators to lay down security policies and load software to remote devices. For example, a company can wipe out the software on a Pocket PC device after three failed login attempts, which might indicate the device is lost or stolen.

Microsoft executives note that the company is seeing a slight shift in attitude toward IT spending. Whereas over the past few years business managers have had a nearly singular focus on cutting costs, Microsoft's customers are showing increased willingness to invest in strategic IT projects.

Gartner analyst Thomas Bittman said that Microsoft's strategy of emphasizing packaged solutions over specific features in point products is a defense against competitive products, including the open-source operating system Linux.

"Instead of focusing on box features, they're going to be talking more about a distributed infrastructure," Bittman said. "In other words, the way to beat Linux isn't to compare our server versus your server. If you have hundreds or thousands, which will be better managed?"

Microsoft's Windows Server System, for example, is a set of products designed to work together. That close integration helps set apart Microsoft's products and prevents competitors from taking a "divide and conquer" approach, Bittman said.

With the fall releases of its tools and database, Microsoft will introduce new Express versions of its database and Visual Studio. The Express line will include a new product, called Visual Web Developer, designed specifically for quickly assembling simple Web sites.

The Express line is an important part of the company's plans to grow the number of Microsoft-aligned developers and compete against open-source alternatives.

Ballmer said that the Microsoft development-tools lineup provides alternatives to those of its primary competitors, IBM, Oracle and low-end open-source tools.

"This is the year I say, 'Watch out, (IBM) Rational, because I think we have some big breakthroughs,'" Ballmer said.

Microsoft's tools targeted at system administrators will improve significantly this year, Ballmer said.

Visual Studio 2005 and the forthcoming edition of the company's administration tool, called Microsoft Operations Manager, will support a file format, called Systems Definition Model. That common data format is designed to smooth out the handoff between programmers and operations people who install and run business applications.