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Web Services to Make MBS Green?

Software hasn't kept up with advances in hardware, according to Bill Gates.

Microsoft's Chairman and chief software architect closed the company's annual Convergence Conference on Wednesday with a look at coming enhancements for the business software line.

Gates told the audience of customers and partners of Microsoft Business Solutions (MBS) that the digital lifestyle and its enterprise counterpart, the so-called "digital workstyle," are being held up by the software.

He noted that advances including 64-bit computing, broadband and Wi-Fi connectivity and disk capacity are dropping in price. " All of these things set us up so that software is really the only limiting factor in terms of the ease of use, the security, the willingness to dive in and take advantage of that," he said.

It's not so bad on the consumer side, according to Gates, where software gets updated annually or even every six months, because there aren't as many compatibility issues as in business.

"People in some senses have more awareness of the changes in digital lifestyle -- photos, music, scheduling, Instant Messaging, communications -- than they do over in the work domain. And that's unfortunate because in terms of improving the economy, making things far more productive in terms of untapped opportunity, the work space is actually as rich an area as the home space," he said.

"In the business space, it's more a stair-step where you'll get, say, a new version of Office and use that for two or three years and then get a major step up as opposed to that continual upgrade," he said.

Of course, this is not good news for Microsoft, which has been accused of pushing out products faster than its customers want to upgrade. Its strategy is to let partners build extensions and custom applications on top of its platform, but that leads to another concern.

"For applications, this has always raised the tough issue of, 'Can the customizations that are done by a firm be done in such a way that when you get upgrades to those applications they don't have to be reintegrated in?'" Gates asked rhetorically. He said Microsoft is working to eliminate the "big version tail."

Gates said every business activity can be made better by advanced software, and Microsoft means to make those improvements not only through its flagship Office product, but also in connecting more applications in new ways.

Gates said most of the exciting innovation comes at the boundary between structured and unstructured data in the enterprise. "Collaboration is in that boundary, workflow is in that boundary, business intelligence is in that boundary -- and so it's really fascinating how we as a company with Office and with the business applications will extend both Office and the applications and make those two things come together," he said.

On Tuesday, Microsoft unveiled Office Communicator, an enterprise messaging application that lets users collaborate and conference via Collaboration Server and SharePoint.

During Gates' Convergence keynote, Microsoft product managers demonstrated how, in Great Plains 8.5, Web services technology will let the enterprise business software pull information from an ERP system.

"The dream of Web services, Gates said, is "that software on any computer connected to the Internet should be able to talk to software on any other computer, independent of where they are located, with operating system is being used, what language the application is being written in, and connect in a very deep way in that you can authenticate who's at both ends," Gates said.

Microsoft has long touted "Project Green" as its next generation of business software, irritating partners who need to push the current line of Axapta, Navision, Great Plains, Solomon and Microsoft CRM. On Monday, the company provided a roadmap for the product line that showed a long road still ahead for the existing applications, with a promise to continue to develop the line through 2013.

Gates promised Web services capabilities in the coming versions of all of the business management suites. He also reiterated Microsoft's commitment to the underperforming MBS division.

"In the same way that building Office for Windows in the '90s allowed Windows to mature and gave us a sense of what was needed there, here the applications we're building and the needs they have for the platform are really pushing us in the right direction," he said. "So it's an integrated platform value, meeting as many of the needs as we can and then having the extensibility for everything else that's needed there."