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BackOffice to embrace Internet

The giant will unveil BackOffice 4.0, a new Net-friendly version of its suite of server-based applications, at Fall Internet World 97, sources say.

Oh, what a tangled Web Microsoft (MSFT) weaves.

Nearly two years to the day after chief executive Bill Gates spread the word that his company would invest heavily in Internet-related technology development, Microsoft will unveil BackOffice 4.0, a new Net-friendly version of its suite of server-based applications, at Fall Internet World 97, according to sources.

The company hopes to send a message to corporate America that its networking needs can be filled by one integrated set of software tools, capping a year of intense marketing in which the company has stressed "scalability" and the needs of enterprise customers as never before.

BackOffice 4.0 will include new versions of Proxy Server and Exchange Server, along with sample intranet code. The latest release also will offer a variety of installation options that will minimize intervention by a user.

Microsoft has reworked BackOffice version numbers to coincide with those of Windows NT in a effort to emphasize the tight connection between the two packages. BackOffice 4.0 replaces version 2.5 of the applications bundle.

The company is also readying a future release of BackOffice, labeled version 5.0, to coincide with the release of Windows NT 5.0 next year, sources said. That release will include SQL Server 7.0, a new version of Exchange code-named Platinum, and will streamline internal communications between applications and make management of applications more integrated.

The key to Microsoft's drive for a greater share of corporate networking software dollars remains the company's fast-growing Windows NT Server operating system (OS). Though several Unix-based systems vendors retain a large share of the back-end server software market, Microsoft executives continue to insist that the days of these types of systems are numbered.

The BackOffice suite of software currently includes Windows NT Server, the SQL Server database, Exchange Server messaging software, Systems Management Server administration tools, and SNA Server host connectivity software. As reported last month by CNET's NEWS.COM, the company is expected to stress the suite as an integrated set of software for intranet settings--a claim that could not be made with past versions of BackOffice.

Jean Bozman, software analyst with International Data Corporation, said Microsoft has noted the benefits of tailoring software for different types of customers. "Microsoft realizes it should position BackOffice for different segmented markets," she said.

The company recently released a BackOffice version targeted at the booming small-business market.

Currently, most corporate networks run on a variety of software that may include a Unix-based database or Web server or a variety of older mainframe-based software applications that have been updated for the Internet age.

Some analysts believe Microsoft will have problems selling a "soup-to-nuts" set of server software to installations that have traditionally incorporated a variety of applications.

"I don't believe BackOffice is the No. 1 driver for NT Server," said Neil MacDonald, analyst with the Gartner Group. "Microsoft will try to repeat what it did on the desktop. Trying to repeat that on the server hasn't taken off as they had hoped.

"Companies still choose best-of-breed products," he added.

The BackOffice introduction next week in New York will cap a busy period within the company's server-side software operations. Microsoft released a new version of Exchange last month, new Enterprise versions of its database and mainframe connectivity tool Monday, and an Option Pack feature set for NT 4.0 Server that includes the latest version of the company's Web server today.

Complicating matters for the BackOffice update is the current state of Windows NT Server. The current version--4.0--has made large inroads in small networks and departments within big companies, but even Microsoft executives admit that it will not be until Windows NT Server 5.0 ships that the company can truly make a case to enterprise customers.

The release of NT 5.0 remains shrouded in mystery, though Microsoft executives recently divulged that a second beta release of the OS will not see the light of day until the first half of next year. That could easily stall final shipment until 1999, according to industry observers.

MacDonald said, "It's entirely likely that it could slip until 1999, but we're still telling our clients late 1998."

Due to the complex directory and security enhancements in the next version, however, MacDonald said there would likely be a lot of bugs to iron out in the software. The Gartner analyst predicts widespread deployment of NT 5.0 on the server will not occur until the year 2000.

"If I'm an administrator, I'm not going to seriously consider deploying this and risk my career for at least a year," he said.

Future versions of BackOffice will be dependent on NT 5.0's features. Microsoft plans to release Windows NT 5.0, SQL Server 7.0, and a new version of Exchange code-named Platinum, in mid-1998.

The next major version of BackOffice, due sometime after NT 5.0's debut, will streamline internal communication between applications and make management of applications more integrated--and more appealing to corporate buyers, the company hopes.