Security will come to be seen as a Microsoft strength. So says Bill Gates, who raised the bar significantly when he told financial analysts recently that ongoing development projects will transform security "from a concern for us into something that's a significant, unique asset as well as a business opportunity."
Gates specifically touted security advances in Windows XP Service Pack 2 and the next version of Windows Server 2003 (code-named R2), as well as new versions of System Management Server (SMS), Microsoft Operations Manager and Internet Security and Acceleration Server.
Delivering on such assurances will be critical, industry experts say.
"There was some concern that XP Service Pack 2 will come out and Microsoft will say that security is less of a focus now," says Matt Rosoff, an analyst with research firm Directions on Microsoft. "They have to keep up the focus on security, especially on stuff like [patching]."
The security boast came as Microsoft spelled out a series of promises for the next 12 months and beyond, including an assault on recurring security vulnerabilities and plans to improve its client operating system, server platform, and Office and collaboration applications as the company inches toward its much-anticipated Longhorn platform.
Company executives hammered on a theme of software integration across the Microsoft portfolio. But nothing dramatically new was introduced and there was little discussion of Longhorn, except to say that progress is being made and that the first beta would ship next year.
Company officials also glossed over myriad product delays that have pushed the release of anticipated software such as SQL Server and Visual Studio, and upgrades to Win 2003 into next year along with highly touted and re-engineered patch tools.
Gates says Microsoft would pick up the pace of software innovation during the next 12 months, but cautioned that corporate development would be slower than it would for consumer products because of the complexity of a platform that integrates client, servers and applications with legacy systems.
"Having compatibility with what's existed before is very, very important," Gates says. Microsoft's focus is to help companies cut network costs, reduce complexity and maintain security.
Business customers "want very clear guidance on how they isolate their networks so they won't be subject to attacks," he says. "They want to understand how to update, which updates to flow through very rapidly, which ones can wait longer and go through a complex testing cycle. They want to understand how to move away from passwords to smartcard or biometric systems that will secure their corporate information in a much better way."
He acknowledged that system monitoring and creating group names and authorisations is too complex and would get easier. "It's too manual. There are too many moving pieces there that need to be built into the system."
He says Microsoft probably has more software in the pipeline than at any other time in its history and cited as evidence the fact that the company will apply for 3,000 patents in fiscal year 2005, up from just over 2,000 the previous year.
On the client side, that innovation in the short term is focused on this month's release of XP Service Pack 2, which is designed to secure desktops.
"There is no silver bullet [for security], but this is another step in a long journey for us," says Will Poole, senior vice president of the Windows client division.
On the server side, Microsoft says its focus will be on spam and virus protection, along with isolation and resiliency technologies to protect networks from misconfigured clients. Patching tools, which have been delayed twice and are scheduled to ship next year, also remain a priority, says Eric Rudder, senior vice president of the server and tools division.
He says Microsoft's fiscal 2005 will see the release of a server operating system for 64-bit Extended Systems that run on AMD and Intel processors, and a server version for high performance computing. Also on tap is the shipment of SMS 2005.