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Opinion: Perfect storm brewing for Microsoft?

Opinion: Perfect storm brewing for Microsoft?

THERE’S no doubt in anyone's mind that Microsoft firmly controls the PC desktop market for business and consumer users, but a potential perfect storm is brewing. It could allow competitors to turn the tide against the software maker for the first time if Microsoft doesn't take action.

This storm could result from the convergence of three troubled fronts. First, Microsoft's next-generation Windows product, code-named Longhorn, isn't due for release until 2006 by the most optimistic projections, and some Microsoft watchers put it as late as 2008. That means the company will have gone at least five years without a major release of its flagship product, the one that brings in the cash.

Microsoft touts Longhorn as revolutionary and says it will make Windows XP look as pale as Windows XP made Windows 98 look. All well and good, except for one thing: A good deal of the market never made the leap to Windows XP. That's amazing when you consider that Windows XP is probably the best operating system Microsoft has ever released, whereas Windows 98 was one of the worst. That stall in the market - a large number of customers holding on to old operating systems such as Windows 95, 98, NT and 2000 - is combining with the delays for Longhorn to put Microsoft at potential risk.

A stalled user base is perilous, especially when users are sticking with a product as poor as Windows 98. That means they're saddled with lousy performance, unreliable systems and unsecured ones as well. The second troubled front that Microsoft faces concerns a market that's starting to look for alternatives.

For example, 30% of 349 small and midsize business users recently surveyed by Jupiter Research say they are looking at Linux on the desktop. While most of those businesses can't make the economic leap to migrate today, that situation could change over a short period of time. As interest from users grows, so does interest from OEMs and independent software vendors, creating a positive feedback loop that could be damaging for Microsoft.

So, why is Microsoft in this position? It's not about bad product, but rather poor marketing and evangelism, the third troubled front. Let's face it: If you can't show the market value of Windows XP over prior efforts, you're not doing an effective marketing job. Microsoft's only hope is to re-launch and reinvigorate XP quickly, making sure that existing XP customers migrate to Service Pack 2 and getting the majority of the customer base to migrate before 2006. That's going to mean some effective marketing, not the fluffy, touchy-feely stuff we've gotten recently (or, worse, something like those inane Microsoft Office commercials, which make me cringe whenever I see them). It's time for Microsoft to start showing what customers can do with their products and how they can improve their businesses and their lives.

This is a huge opportunity for Microsoft's competitors and customers. The competitors can use this as an opportunity to close the gap before Redmond gets its act together. IT departments should use the time to evaluate all their options for the desktop. While most will be well served by going to XP, some will benefit from looking at other options, if for no other reason than to compare and justify costs.

It's time to get users off old Windows versions for security and reliability reasons, and if Microsoft doesn't step up to the plate quickly, someone else will. Like nature, the IT industry abhors a vacuum. The market simply won't stand still until 2008, or whenever Longhorn ships.

Michael Gartenberg is vice president and research director for the Personal Technology & Access and Custom Research groups at Jupiter Research in New York. Contact him at michael.gartenberg@mindspring.com. His weblog and RSS feed are at weblogs.jupiterresearch.com/analysts/gartenberg.


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