Microsoft goes modular

At its Tech-Ed developers conference in early June, Microsoft will attempt to pull a number of upcoming product releases under a single umbrella strategy focused on easing the creation, usage, storage, and tracking of software components. This theme of software components will be woven into discussions of upgrades to Microsoft's Visual Studio tools suite, Internet Explorer browser, Office application suite, SQL Server database, Component Object Model (COM), and Windows NT with its Active Directory.

At its Tech-Ed developers conference in early June, Microsoft will attempt to pull a number of upcoming product releases under a single umbrella strategy focused on easing the creation, usage, storage, and tracking of software components.

This theme of software components will be woven into discussions of upgrades to Microsoft's Visual Studio tools suite, Internet Explorer browser, Office application suite, SQL Server database, Component Object Model (COM), and Windows NT with its Active Directory, according to sources.

The centerpiece of Microsoft's enterprise strategy, Windows NT 5.0, will take center stage at the conference in New Orleans. NT 5.0 is not expected until the end of this year, at the earliest, and most likely will ship next year. Although Beta 2 of the upgrade is expected to be released close to the end of June, the beta version will not be distributed to Tech-Ed attendees.

With Internet Explorer 5.0 and its accompanying Internet Explorer Administration Kit, which Microsoft detailed earlier this month, IT managers will be able to deploy a subset of the browser based on their own particular requirements, according to sources.

"This will counter the bad publicity Microsoft gets for having such a gigantic browser, [which is] a piece of software that should be lean and mean," said one developer, who requested anonymity. "You will get to choose what you want, even the [Java] virtual machine."

Microsoft has not specified when Internet Explorer 5.0 will become available.

SQL Server 7.0 could be a more attractive storage facility for components because of its support for the Microsoft Repository, Data Transformation Services, and online analytical processing features.

Microsoft's chief financial officer, Greg Maffei, said last week that SQL Server 7.0 will ship in the third quarter of this year.

"The database component is as important or more important than the operating system component in the enterprise," said Dwight Davis, an analyst at Summit Strategies, in Boston. "Microsoft has a lot riding on SQL Server 7.0. It will be the first proof point for Microsoft to say, `We really can generate internally an enterprise-grade product.'"

With a component strategy in place, Microsoft could move on a front it has eyed for some time -- software subscriptions.

According to one source close to the company, Microsoft plans later this year to start selling to customers using a subscription model, which would see users paying a flat yearly fee or monthly fee for their software. Microsoft's Active Directory technology, a part of NT 5.0, would provide the infrastructure for tracking component licenses.

The thinking is that, with a subscription model, Microsoft could build a predictable revenue model, and customers would gain more flexibility from a new component model.

Microsoft would have to find a way to include its channel partners in such a plan, or the company risks a backlash from resellers and customers that are not as advanced in terms of adopting component architectures.

But technologically, a subscription model could be workable now, because of new Windows tools and utilities for automatic fixes and updates and Zero Administration Windows, Davis said.

"Microsoft is already doing this at the corporate level, in essence," Davis said. "The model is understood and already is working [there]; the question is whether it migrates into the consumer space."

Microsoft in Redmond, Washington, can be reached at http://www.microsoft.com.

SIDEBAR: Pieces of the Puzzle

By Bob Trott

Microsoft's component strategy will center around these software titles.

-- Visual Studio 6.0

-- Internet Explorer 5.0

-- Office 9

-- SQL Server 7.0

-- Active Directory

-- Component Object Model+

-- Windows NT 5.0

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