User group asks Microsoft to go slow on new products: Frequent software updates strain manufacturers' resources

The year-old Microsoft Manufacturing User Group (MS-MUG) wants the software giant to slow down the introduction of new software releases affecting real-time manufacturing controls.

Manufacturers can't afford to shut down plants to implement new operating systems or service packs as often as Microsoft plans, members of the MS-MUG said in interviews last week.

The group of 50 members, which includes technology managers at large processing plants, recently sent Microsoft officials its first report addressing the issue of product turnover, or churn, according to MS-MUG officials.

"If you are a large multinational manufacturing company and have 700 facilities each with 30 to 40 software licences running machines, it's not like you can shut down operations every three months to do updates.

You'll lose money," said Dennis Daniels, an MS-MUG spokesman and director of business for ARC Advisory Group.

At Procter & Gamble, use of Microsoft software in manufacturing has required more personnel for support and upgrades than was expected, said Dave Bauman, technology leader for corporate engineering.

Bauman is the chairman of MS-MUG, which was created about a year ago at Microsoft's behest, he said, after manufacturing users started buying Windows NT for manufacturing controls.

"The problem is that in some cases we have multiple pieces of application software on the same platform, but one application vendor will say he needs service pack 4 for the application to work and another application vendor will say he needs service pack 5, and if I run both, how can I [afford to] do that?" Bauman said.

The report identified several areas for Microsoft to address, and was sent to Ron Sielinski, technology evangelist at Microsoft. Sielinski said through a spokeswoman that he has received the MS-MUG report and will respond to it in a conference call with the users at the end of this month or early next month. He declined further comment.

The report says that "rapid release of new versions of the Windows operating system, plus numerous service packs within each version, boosts overall lifecycle costs for manufacturers who must continually validate Windows-based systems containing the new releases".

Microsoft is proposing a separate release for bug fixes and new feature additions, which MS-MUG deems critical to managing churn. But the report says manufacturers will still continue to experience a higher degree of churn than they might expect.

Bauman said part of the issue is that manufacturers have used proprietary controls systems. Some of those systems have remained in place for 20 years.

By contrast, manufacturers see Microsoft providing annual product releases, which means a product will have Microsoft's support for only two to three years. Manufacturers want five years.

MS-MUG also identified Dynamic Link Libraries (DLLs) as an issue of concern, saying that Visual Studio run-time libraries and components "appear to be the most obvious contributor to the problem". Visual Studio run-time DLLs and Object Linking and Embedding components should be distributed with operating system releases for better coordination, MS-MUG said.

Also, MS-MUG asked for a seamless way to provide DLL-redirection functionality, since systems administrators have to intervene to make things work in Windows 2000. MS-MUG asked for a Windows Installer product to help.

Bauman and Daniels said the MS-MUG relationship is on cordial grounds, and described the problems as by-products of Microsoft's newness in the real-time manufacturing controls market.

However, Daniels said the problem of constant updates will only worsen as Microsoft begins to expand with Windows CE version 3.0 in embedded interface devices that thousands of plant operators and workers in a single plant use.

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