Challenges Ahead for Microsoft Support

FRAMINGHAM (06/30/2000) - Just when Microsoft Corp. 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.

"They've come light-years in just the last two years," said Ron Griffin, senior vice president and CIO at The Home Depot Inc. in Atlanta. "They are becoming much more focused on the needs of the enterprise."

"They respond quicker," agreed Steve Sommer, CIO at New York law firm Hughes Hubbard & Reed LLP, which has 1,100 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.

Consulting Unit Wins Praise

Also making strides, users said, is Microsoft Consulting Services (MCS), a separate unit that typically helps customers implement new Microsoft technologies, often in tandem with partners whose consulting expertise extends beyond Microsoft products.

"They've been able to get really good people and train them well on Microsoft products," said Griffin. "But if you're a Fortune 50 company, you need people who can tie in to myriad environments."

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

Adoption of Products Slowed

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 Inc. in Boston. 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.

Sommer said he has had good experience with MCS and is interested in using new Microsoft technologies such as DNA 2000 to build e-business applications.

However, he said, Microsoft has to work more closely than it has with big companies on development and integration projects.

In response to such needs, Microsoft in March joined with Andersen Consulting to create Avanade Inc., a consulting company that will help companies build e-commerce applications on Microsoft platforms. And at Tech Ed in Florida earlier this month, Microsoft announced that it would invest US$2 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 organization.

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 U.S. economy at $43 billion, much of which would come from the additional integration work Fortune 500 companies will need to perform, said Clabby. A Fortune 500 company will have $2 million in additional integration costs each year to make sure the operating system, directories and applications work together seamlessly, he predicted.

"Even if they get broken up, I'm sure [products] would work together," said Bart Fitzgerald, vice president and CIO at Central Programs Inc. in Bethany, Missouri. "But we'd be less inclined to go out on the bleeding edge. Right now, I feel comfortable rolling out SQL Server 2000 close to the release date. If it's a separate company, I'd be more reluctant."

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