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Managing desktops the Microsoft way

Software maker is moving beyond eating its own dog food. But some partners say company is grazing on their turf.

Microsoft likes to brag that it eats its own dog food. For the past two years, though, the company has been trying to figure out how its secret formula tastes outside its home turf of Redmond, Wash.

The software maker is known for being the earliest adopter of its own software, often deploying its beta products through large swaths of its operations. However, it realized a couple years back that its own perspective might not be representative. So Microsoft made the decision to take over desktop management duties for a handful of companies.

The effort began quietly in March 2005, when Microsoft agreed to take over responsibility for managing desktop PCs at battery maker Energizer. Earlier this year, it quietly added a second company, XL Capital, according to Directions on Microsoft analyst Paul DeGroot.

"I'm told it is basically a similar kind of deal to the Energizer (arrangement)," DeGroot said. Representatives at Microsoft and XL Capital did not return requests for comment.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said in an e-mail interview before the company's partner conference last year that the effort would not be limited to just Energizer.

"There will be a few others, where we will mirror our own internal IT environment, running the technology hand in hand, as opposed to being a step removed," Ballmer said. "We're going to test this out and see where it takes us."

Some partners, though, are concerned where the effort might lead Microsoft. The company is still not sure just where it will end up, Ballmer said.

"Once we know what we learn from the experience, then we can figure out how to productize those services," Ballmer said at the 2005 partner conference. "Maybe some of it should come from us, with customization by you; maybe we'll just turn all the learning over and tell you how to operationalize this product service."

DeGroot said some partners remained dismayed that Microsoft had not turned to them. The analyst said he spoke to one partner recently who said: "If Microsoft really wanted to learn from a pretty good source about the problems customers face in managing the desktop, they could have asked us, because we do hundreds of thousands of desktops."

Still getting Energized
In a case study posted to its Web site last month, Microsoft characterized the Energizer effort as a work in progress. It said it is still in the pilot phase of some projects and has only partially completed other efforts, such as desktop management work and a move to SharePoint-based portals.

For Energizer's part, Chief Information Officer Randy Benz said his company was caught in a bind before it turned to Microsoft.

"I have employees scattered all over the world, so even though we're a midsize company, I have all the complexities associated with managing infrastructure all over the globe," he said in the Microsoft case study. "We just can't stay up to speed with technology, because we can't deploy quickly enough to avail ourselves of new systems."

Apparently, it was that struggle that led Benz to seek out Microsoft's help. According to the case study, he approached Microsoft exec Rick Devenuti after the IT veteran gave a presentation on Microsoft's internal operations at an event for CIOs.

"You're already managing 160,000 of your own desktops," Benz said he told Devenuti. "Would it kill you to handle 7,000 more?"

According to the Microsoft paper, that's what got the ball rolling and eventually led to the project, now known as Microsoft Managed Solutions.

DeGroot said Microsoft is learning a lot by doing things firsthand. But he added that handling desktops is still a tough issue and that Microsoft's own technology can be part of the challenge. "Some of these problems are baked into the quality of the operating system and the tools that Microsoft has in things like Group Policy," he said.

The key question, DeGroot said, is what Microsoft does with the know-how it gains. It could just improve its software. Alternatively, it might see desktop management as something that it can offer directly in some standardized way, perhaps through an online service.

If the solution they come up with looks like that, it's trouble for partners," DeGroot said. "If, on the other hand, they say we are going to come up with better management tools...that benefits everyone who uses those products."