RealTime IT News

Thriving in Redmond's Shadow

"Microsoft has big feet -- and Microsoft's partners are just toe jam."

That's the blunt assessment of one software developer. But he isn't bitter.

"That's still a much bigger market than some others -- and it's easier to sell into," he added.

Companies that build products on the Windows platform, whether official Microsoft partners or not, must cope with Redmond's long and winding product roadmaps. They must also always have the knowledge that, sooner or later, Microsoft may decide to roll their third-party functionality into the operating system.

"Everyone knows Microsoft is headed their way," said Larry Watson, president and CEO of RockySoft, a developer of inventory management applications that complement Microsoft Business Solutions (MBS) software. "They keep adding feature after feature to their operating system and eliminating niche players. It keeps us hopping."

Hank Barnes, vice president of marketing and product development for business process management applications developer Ultimus, said decisions have to be made in light of a myriad of Microsoft issues.

"You look at the potential touch points you have with the various Microsoft technologies: the operating system, the browser, the Office family, SharePoint, BizTalk," said Barnes, whose company recently announced its integration with the BizTalk and SharePoint server systems.

"For each of those pieces, you need to make some prediction of the market impact of new releases: how fast it will be adopted; how supporting that technology can help you sell more or position you favorably with Microsoft, so they can help you gain and grow your own business."

But if ISVs must keep one eye on Microsoft, they keep their focus firmly on their customers, Barnes said.

"You make product decisions based on the needs of your customers and your market," he said. "We built this company into a leader not by following Microsoft's product direction and being viewed as a competitor of Microsoft, but as one that chose the Microsoft platform because it lowers the total cost of ownership for customers."

Even though they may sometimes feel like they're dancing to Redmond's drums, ISVs offer several compelling reasons for keeping on the hop. Some companies count on customers to pile third-party apps on top of Microsoft's, leaving them a big enough piece of the pie.

At the same time, they feel they're nimbler and more responsive than Microsoft can be. So, even if Microsoft eventually moves into their turf, they'll have time to stake out their own customer base.

ISVs can also take advantage of Microsoft's own marketing and sales machine by teaming with the Redmond crew on sales calls and taking its referrals. And finally, they can play the role of clean-up crew, delivering on what Microsoft promises but doesn't quite come through with.

Layered Look

In the area of security, more is more. Third-party software vendors aren't concerned about Microsoft's inclusion of security features, such as spam filtering in Exchange Server.

"Companies will take the layering approach, not just one solution," said Laurie Murrell, communications manager for Sunbelt Software. "There will be a share of people saying Microsoft has one, we'll just use it. But most are saying, 'I have to layer this. I have to have more than one anti-spam and one anti-virus solution, because one engine may get updated against a virus faster than another.' By using two anti-spam agents, you can get better protection."

Kim Akers, Microsoft's senior director for Exchange marketing, agrees with that principle.

"We believe that solving spam is going to be an industry effort. It will take a lot of companies contributing; there are a lot of ways you can go about attacking spam."

Because each anti-spam provider tends to use a different methodology, continued Akers, customers will tend to use a couple different solutions that match their needs, leaving room for third-party application providers.

Now or Later?

Sunbelt also offers ServerVision, a network management suite that competes with Microsoft Operations Manager (MOM).

"MOM is huge," said Sunbelt product manager Phil Owens. "We're going after the smaller companies, not the huge ones that need MOM functionality. MOM is also pretty expensive to get started."

MOM, which was released to manufacturing last month, is an application that provides event and performance management, application monitoring and reporting features for the enterprise.

For others looking for opportunities ahead of Microsoft's major product releases, Xamlon, maker of XAML development tools that plug into Visual Studio .NET, is a case in point. XAML is Microsoft's new XML-based, user-interface language, code-named Avalon, which will appear in future versions of XP and Longhorn, the next version of Windows. Xamlon 1.0 will ship in October, while Longhorn is expected in some form in 2006.

"Our product provides what ultimately will come from [Microsoft]," said Paul Colton, Xamlon CEO. "[Longhorn] might exist in a few years, but that's where we are today."

The company said that Xamlon lets developers use XAML to build and deploy applications for current versions of Windows and that also will easily port to future Windows releases.

"We tell customers, 'Follow us, so you don't have to follow them,'" Colton said. "If you want something stable today, go with us."

Francis Lambert, director of product marketing for Zantaz, has a more colorful opinion of the Microsoft touch.

"Microsoft moves into an area, and all the flowers wilt in the garden," Lambert said. "But Microsoft hasn't traditionally been a company that sells highly scalable enterprise software. Instead, they sell a lot of licenses."

Zantaz offers electronic communications management applications, including a solution for archiving Exchange Server traffic. Lambert thinks Microsoft is years away from providing large-scale e-mail archiving software.

Cooperative Competition

Often, of course, ISVs and Microsoft go together -- on sales calls.

"Microsoft has two big edges: name recognition and also an openness to working with third parties like ourselves," said RockySoft's Watson. "They understand they can't be everything to everybody, so they're willing to open doors to help close deals." He said that attitude was really different from other ERP vendors' attitudes, even though RockySoft's products work with all of them.

Jeffrey Porter, RockySoft director of marketing and sales, said he really appreciates the MBS channel.

"We get most of our leads from Microsoft themselves. Their primary channel within Great Plains has a tight community and it's very cooperative and open, as well."

Neither is RockySoft's Watson worried about Microsoft's plans to roll its four MBS products into one.

"It's a very large undertaking, even for Microsoft. It will slow their development down substantially, in terms of getting out new features. So we're delighted."

Delivering on the Promise

Microsoft has a bit of a reputation for not getting things perfect the first time, which also provides opportunity for ISVs on whose turf Microsoft has begun to lumber. For example, if Microsoft does come out with a new generation of MBS products, RockySoft plans to deliver step-up functionality for that line as well.

"The first release will be half-baked," Watson said. "They'll need us more than ever."

Similarly, as Microsoft builds out Avalon, Xamlon plans to enhance its own product.

"We'll provide tools and resources that go above and beyond what Microsoft has announced," said Colton.

If and when Microsoft brings Avalon to market, it could take several versions to get it right, he added. Even if it does, he said, "Training and support is not Microsoft's strong feature, so later we'll focus on that."

Finally, ISVs say Microsoft will always need them. According to Sunbelt's Murrel, "Anything that helps the Windows environment run better helps them, too."

Updates prior version to clarify the release of Microsoft's MOM.