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Microsoft devotees speak out

The software giant is gleaning some of its best advice from the 1,300 consultants, dealers and enthusiasts the company honored this week in Redmond, Wash.

Microsoft is gleaning some of its best advice from the 1,300 consultants, dealers and enthusiasts the company honored this week in Redmond, Wash.

Each year, the software giant pays tribute to its Most Valuable Professionals (MVPs) during a conference at its Redmond headquarters. The MVPs are Microsoft enthusiasts from around the world who are selected to offer feedback and technical advice for the company and its customers. As part of the three-day event, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates on Tuesday gave a keynote speech reiterating the company's vision for what he called the "digital decade."

Microsoft's goal is to be "more open" with these early technology adopters "in a much more proactive way," said Lorie Moore, Microsoft's corporate vice president for product support services. Many of these professionals consult for large companies whose business Microsoft wants--particularly those running Unix servers and mainframes or considering alternatives to Windows such as Linux.

"There have always been threats at Microsoft," Moore said. "Today, you can say Linux is a big threat. The Internet used to be a big threat.

"Community has always been core to Microsoft's mission. For us, community is about making sure we're having good, ongoing dialogue with the (MVPs)--the IT pros, the developers--who ultimately are the early adopters."

The MVPs' commitment to Microsoft products can play a key role in influencing the buying decisions of many of the company's larger customers. At the same time, the MVPs are quick to communicate customer complaints or criticisms to the software giant.

"They are helpful not necessarily in fixing things but pointing out all our flaws," Moore said. "We get to see what doesn't work very well. The value of what MVPs provide to Microsoft is the feedback to the development teams. So they're getting customer feedback and feeding that back to us so that we can make better products, make better decisions."

Because MVPs have access to information about new products during the early stages of development, their feedback can affect what features ultimately make the final release. At the same time, complaints from MVP customers can lead to changes in existing products.

"One example is some Outlook Express issues that we've had," Moore said. "At our last MVP event, this was a big deal."

MVP input also led to changes to Windows XP and Visual Fox Pro 8, among other applications. Some of the most important contributions have been in security; customer feedback helped Microsoft improve the navigation of its Security Web site and tackle larger security problems.

Trustworthy Microsoft?
Microsoft started pushing harder on resolving ongoing security problems following a January 2002 e-mail that Gates sent employees encouraging them to focus more on privacy and reliability. But a year later, customers and analysts have given Microsoft mixed marks on its security push, known as Trustworthy Computing.

At the conference this week, MVPs discussed the SQL Server Slammer worm that slowed Internet traffic the last week of January, as well as the overall problem of applying security patches. One of the primary concerns: Customers used software that, unbeknownst to them, ran a runtime version of SQL Server that could not easily be patched--if at all.

David Shaw, chief technologist for Simsbury, Conn.-based is a Windows Server MVP. His consultancy serves midsized businesses with 50,000 to 100,000 users. Some of his customers struggled to purge their systems of the Slammer worm.

"It's very clearly difficult to manage patches," Shaw said. "Patch management is not an insignificant programming exercise. But that's no excuse not to get it right."

Still, Shaw had many good things to say about Microsoft's security push, particularly the way Windows Server 2003 ships "locked down" to prevent accidental security breaches. Such an approach could temporarily break some customer software or cause other problems, but Shaw sees the approach as "the right direction for the company."

"They're making the right decisions in the right way," he emphasized. "They have sacrificed the usability of their products for the sake of security, and that's something that has never really been done before at Microsoft. The mantra here has always been usability first."

Shaw, who used to work on security issues in the military, gave Microsoft "a pretty solid 'B' in (security) improvements over the last year, understanding that I would give absolutely no one an 'A' over the last year. I'm a pretty harsh critic for obvious reasons. My background sort of drives me that way."

Martin Tuip, Exchange Server MVP and technical consultant for Getronics in the Netherlands, shared many of Shaw's views. Tuip typically works with global companies with anywhere from 25,000 to 140,000 users.

Microsoft has "made a significant push forward" in terms of security, he said. "But they're not there yet."

At the same time, he said that many security problems "are just caused by human use. If you don't click on an attachment you're not supposed to open, you don't spread a virus. How do you protect against a user who bypasses all the security you just installed?"

Response to big releases
One of the most important roles MVPs play is prepping customers for the release of major, new Microsoft products. "MVPs in an enterprise account bring knowledge to those businesses that help them with their technology," Microsoft's Moore said.

MVP feedback also helps the software titan gauge how quickly enterprise customers will adopt new releases. "Boy, are we getting feedback," Moore said. "We're always hearing feedback about existing products and how we can migrate those to newer versions."

Microsoft is closely listening to MVPs like Shaw and Tuip who specialize in products for which the company will release new software this year.

Microsoft is set to release Windows Server 2003 in April, with Exchange Server 2003, code-named Titanium, launching as soon as midyear. Both products are important anchors to the company's .Net Web services strategy.

Exchange could be an important revenue-generator for Microsoft, considering the large number of customers still running Exchange Server 5.5. Exchange Server 2000 is the more current version.

Tuip said there "are still a large number of folks still on Exchange 5.5. In those communities, they're really getting excited about Titanium."

But many of those customers face a potentially difficult transition. "If you're running 5.5, you're going to have to implement Active Directory (to make the move)," he said. "That's something you're going to have to think about."

Microsoft introduced Active Directory--software for managing network resources, computers and users--with Windows 2000. But many businesses took a long time testing the software, which slowed adoption of Windows 2000 Server.

"A significant number of our customers are interested in going directly to Titanium and (Windows) 2003 and Active Directory," Shaw said.

As far as Windows Server 2003 is concerned, companies' delaying their Windows Server 2000 migrations means many businesses won't need to move to the newer version. But Microsoft is banking on Windows NT 4 Server customers quickly making the move to Windows Server 2003. Microsoft estimates about 15 percent of Windows Server users are on NT 4.

"We're not really sure what the numbers are on NT 4 out there right now," Shaw said. "One of the significant drivers for upgrades we're hearing is the aging of Exchange 5.5 and the NT 4 security model. We're hearing more customers indicating that they're going to move to the new platform and Active Directory than we did with Windows 2000."