Support challenges loom for Microsoft

Just when Microsoft customers thought it was safe to call on the company for enterprise-level technical support, the vendor is facing a double challenge: support for newly sophisticated electronic-business applications and the court-ordered split. That situation has customers who are satisfied wondering if they will stay satisfied for long.

Microsoft product support services has been struggling for years to rid itself of a reputation for shoddy support and now is trying to add enterprise-level services to stimulate adoption of Windows 2000.

"It's come light years in just the last two years," said Ron Griffin, senior vice president and CIO at The Home Depot.

"It is becoming much more focused on the needs of the enterprise."

"The company responds quicker," agreed Steve Sommer, CIO at law firm Hughes Hubbard & Reed, which has 1100 desktop PCs.

Some of that improvement can be attributed to service initiatives launched last year, such as the Alliance and Premier support programs. Those programs offer benefits such as consultants who are dedicated to companies in the programs, like Hughes Hubbard & Reed.

Nevertheless, difficulties lie ahead. Besides the antitrust case and whatever disruptions or changes that may eventually bring, Microsoft still needs to add expertise in the technologies the company is touting in its newest products.

For example, skills in Windows 2000 Active Directory remain hard to find, and that's forestalling adoption of Active Directory, according to Joe Clabby, an analyst at Aberdeen Group. Microsoft's recent move into electronic business, with upcoming server products such as BizTalk Server and Commerce Server, will only increase the skills gap, he added.

In response to such needs, Microsoft in March joined with Andersen Consulting to create Avanade, a consulting company that will help companies build e-commerce applications on Microsoft platforms. And Microsoft announced recently that it would invest $US2 billion over the next three years to train developers in electronic-business skills such as XML.

Lori Moore, vice president of support and services at Microsoft, said the company is also adding other - as yet undefined - programs that will combine Microsoft's product support with consulting services from Microsoft Professional Services, which today is a separate organisation.

She offered no details on those programs but did say they would likely be launched in the first half of next year.

Meanwhile, there's the threat of the breakup. Aberdeen Group recently estimated the total cost of the Microsoft breakup to the US economy at $US43 billion, much of which would come from the additional integration work Fortune 500 companies will need to perform. A Fortune 500 company will have $US2 million in additional integration costs each year to make sure the operating system, directories and applications work together seamlessly, Clabby predicted.

Users say there's still a way to go

Dermot Musker, national database administrator, Tempo Services.

"We steer clear of all Microsoft server-based operating systems - we don't believe Microsoft can provide and service reliable operating systems for servers.

IT&T manager, health service organisation "We would not be prepared to roll out anything that wasn't well supported.

"Microsoft's current level of service and support is average - it's probably around the medium level compared with the support we get from other software suppliers."

Peter Adams, IT manager, Kendell Airlines"The commercial reality is that Microsoft will have to support e-business initiatives. Bill Gates said a while back that the Internet was not going to be big, then a few months later Microsoft had to catch up.

"Microsoft isn't making billions a year because it is stupid - if it is going to bring in new products then it will have to support them or lose customers."

Con Gatsios, IT manager, Melbourne office of Commonwealth Public Prosecutions"Microsoft would be above average [for support], although we don't deal directly with it. We use and test its software like Exchange. However, if you are going to roll out a product you test the company's first and give it a go."

Srimal Abeysekera, IS manager, Macquarie Health Service"As Microsoft is a large organisation surely it can use enough resources to provide adequate service and support. The first impression I get is not to jump in and use Active Directory.

"Generally the feeling is that Microsoft's level of support is a bit ‘light'. It should take feedback from customers into consideration in shaping its technical support." - Lauren Thomsen-Moore

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