“The next 12 months will be the most exciting 12 months we’ve ever had in terms of innovation,” exclaimed an ebullient Steve Ballmer (pictured) of Microsoft as he gave a rare insight into some of the features and market impact of products forthcoming products such as the next version of Windows, Office, Windows Server, Virtual Earth, Windows Mobile 5.0 and not forgetting Xbox 360.
Ballmer, who was in Dublin last week, emphasised the impact Microsoft has had in terms of the technology world and its social impact in the early years of the 21st Century. “We talk about our mission as a company as enabling people and businesses to realise their full potential. The only way you get to assess that — it’s not financial, it’s not what you shift — it’s what people use. And we’re excited about the impact we’ve made over the past couple of years. Whether it’s becoming the No 1 blogging site in the world in the past six months, what we’ve done with the Xbox — we’ve 400 million users right now — our database SQL outsells Oracle and IBM DB2, we have 200 million Hotmail users, 170 million MSN Instant Messaging users. We are excited because of the innovation we do and the impact it has.”
Innovation led by research and development was foremost on Ballmer’s agenda as he addressed journalists at a round table briefing. He said Microsoft was fired up about “innovation that can change the world, that can have customer impact and frankly innovation that can drive growth”.
He explained: “Literally, we have a new version of our flagship Windows product, the most significant Windows version maybe ever but certainly since Windows 95, coming. We’ve got the most significant version of Office that we’ve ever done – taking Office out of its traditional realm and into business workflows and process management and business intelligence – coming in the next 12 months.
“As well as this, major releases of our server infrastructure, Windows Server, SQL Server, our development tools, new management products, analysis tools and a new security product that will ship in the next year. We will have new things coming in business intelligence, the Xbox 360, plus we’ve got the release of Windows Mobile 5.0 that will unleash its power. MSN will have at least one or two releases of our search site, we also have stuff coming in Virtual Earth, a major Hotmail release, a major IM release and the first major update to our space in blogging technology. It’s really a rich pipeline.”
In relation to the next version of Microsoft Office, Ballmer said the objective will be to further tie the software into formal business operations and in a sense everyday users of the technology will be writing software applications. “We will be building in portions of portal, workflow and business intelligence into document management,” he said.
In the days prior to Ballmer’s briefing, it emerged that search giant Google and software and hardware player Sun Microsystems joined forces in a venture will make it easier to obtain Sun’s Java software, the Google Toolbar and the OpenOffice productivity suite; a move observers suggest is designed to break the dominance of Microsoft’s Office suite.
Asked for his analysis of the situation and its resultant impact on Microsoft’s market share, Ballmer appeared unconcerned, even dismissive. “Sun’s going to distribute Google’s toolbar . . . I don’t think there’s anything momentous in that. Secondly Google is going to help promote OpenOffice — we’ve been competing with OpenOffice for years – it’s free and downloadable. We’ve competed with them before and I don’t think this changes anything in that picture.”
However, Ballmer was particularly fired up when the discussion shifted to the forthcoming Christmas launch of the second generation of Microsoft’s gaming console, the Xbox 360. While acknowledging that Sony’s current PlayStation has a higher global market share, Ballmer said Microsoft has cut its teeth with the first-generation Xbox and is positioning itself for what games developers want – a truly competitive games market. He also emphasised the online playability of the forthcoming Xbox generation.
He said: “We are launching first with this generation, we’ve got credibility coming into this generation, the publishers love us because all publishers want is competition. Sony doesn’t have an online play. Isn’t that weird – the future is the internet and there’s no formal online architecture approach in the PlayStation.
“Sony’s not going to be out with its next-generation box for who knows how long. I feel good. I’m feeling poised for leadership,” Ballmer exclaimed in a soaring voice.
By John Kennedy