Microsoft buries hatchet with French IT users

PARIS (09/19/2003) - [Note to editors: This story was previously posted under embargo. It is now being reposted as it is available for immediate use online.]

After 10 years of correspondence, and tense relations over Software Assurance, Microsoft Corp. signed a long-term cooperation agreement with the IT club for large French businesses, CIGREF, on Thursday.

It's a success for Jean-Pierre Corniou. Less than a week before giving up his seat as president of CIGREF, he signed a partnership agreement with Microsoft, formalizing the contact that the organization has had with the software developer for more than 10 years now. Even if he chooses not to stand for re-election, it's a great way for Corniou to conclude his term in office. And although the partners see nothing but coincidence, his timing is good.

For Christophe Aulnette, chief executive officer (CEO) of Microsoft France, this agreement is also an excellent way to signal to the market a return to constructive relations with users, after more than 10 years of conflict. In the second quarter of 2001, the announcement of pricing for Software Assurance (Licensing 6.0) sparked off violent reactions from a number of customers, especially the members of CIGREF, and forced Microsoft to review its policy. The agreement is also a good way for the developer to assure its customers that it is listening, at a time when more and more of them are turning to open source alternatives.

A sign of the importance that Microsoft attaches to this partnership is that CEO Steve Ballmer, visiting Europe, had no hesitation in making a detour through Paris Thursday evening to sign the agreement at the same time as Aulnette and Corniou.

"The involvement of Steve Ballmer in person is a strong signal," said Sébastien Bachollet, deputy director of CIGREF in charge of supplier relations.

The agreement defines a framework for long-term cooperation between the two organizations, with mutual obligations. Microsoft promises to inform CIGREF before any changes in licensing policy, standards or product roadmap. CIGREF undertakes to inform the software developer of its members' opinions on its policies, and also of their needs and expectations. The objective is to exchange points of view and act early to avoid dissatisfaction with commercial launches.

"The new framework agreement with CIGREF can only help the development of information systems in the largest French enterprises," Ballmer said in an e-mail. He said that he hopes to see more agreements like this.

For now, CIGREF is the only group in the world to benefit from this kind of cooperation, and this for two reasons, according to Microsoft officials. First, there is no equivalent to CIGREF elsewhere. And second, because smaller associations, particularly in France, don't have the representation or the ability to react that are necessary for this type of agreement. The company doesn't have the necessary resources to talk to everyone, a Microsoft representative said.

In particular, the smallest customers, even grouped into associations, don't have the weight or the structure to fight it out. "It's always been difficult for us to make ourselves heard at Microsoft, which has always imposed its products and has never made a big effort to listen to us and take into account our comments," said Daniel Rigault, president of CoTer Club, an association of IT managers in local government with around 40 members.

It's a view shared by Jean-Marc Obeniche, secretary-general of ANDSI, the National Association of IT directors, with around 50 members, essentially medium-size companies with a few larger ones mixed in. "When we want to tell them about our problems, it's almost impossible," he said. "Microsoft tells us we're too small!"

Neverthesless, things are changing, as shown by Microsoft's involvement in the most recent meeting of CoTer Club and in seminars organized by ANDSI.

"They're listening much more since the arrival of open-source alternatives and of a report supporting the use of open source software in the civil service," Rigault said.

Obeniche highlighted the danger to Microsoft posed by open-source in the market for small businesses: "For small organizations like the members of ANDSI, it would be easy to drop Microsoft and migrate toward such alternatives, much easier than for a big company, in any case."

Microsoft is aware of the threat. And its agreement with CIGREF reaches far beyond its members: "All the progress we make will apply to other companies too," Bachollet said.

For Rigault, "It goes without saying that CIGREF, which has the necessary weight, should be first in line to put pressure on Microsoft. But the concessions obtained must benefit everyone."

Other agreements could be envisaged. "Nothing is planned today," Aulnette said, "but if other organizations like CIGREF were to be created in other countries, we would clearly be ready to sign the same type of partnership with them."

CIGREF won't be resting on its laurels said Corniou: "We hope that other big vendors will follow in Microsoft's footsteps by entering into the same kind of discussion and taking account of big customers expectations."

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