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Microsoft's strategy, by contrast, is focused and consistent, DelBene claimed, offering "full-fidelity viewing” across on-premise, Internet-based and mobile platforms. It was no surprise to hear DelBene playing Microsoft trump cards, like Office's ubiquity and Redmond's offering of both PC and cloud-based apps. But DelBene didn't give an inch on Microsoft's ability to compete and win in pure cloud deployments as well, with its Online Services and Office Web Applications.
"The hybrid world is a reality, but that's not our only point of differentiation," DelBene said. "We'll have a bunch of customers who will go purely online, and we have the best offering there. Other customers will stay on premises. The real challenge will be addressing customers in the in-between states… so we're giving them the flexibility to figure out which divisions they want to bring into the cloud and at what pace," he said.
In the on-premise realm, Microsoft has a lot riding on its planned May mega release of the 2010 versions of venerable products like SharePoint, Office and Exchange. The upgrades include improved support for global organizations with extranet connectivity in SharePoint. Business Intelligence features have been amped up in SharePoint 2010, and data visualization and analysis options improved in Excel. Outlook finally gains the familiar Office ribbon interface, highlighting formerly buried tools for ignoring and collapsing message threads that otherwise clog e-mail inboxes.
Microsoft is also releasing Office Communications Server 2010, advancing the company's ambition to break into voice-over-IP telephony by leveraging the popularity of Office and SharePoint. Slick voice response and recognition capabilities and integrations with calendaring and e-mail are aimed at knitting together a seamless collaboration experience. A new Social Connector feature adds personal profiles, expertise management capabilities and presence awareness.
"Many companies now support separate presence products, instant messaging and chat products, real-time collaboration products and VOIP and digital voice products, yet the collaboration scenarios totally cross over," DelBene observed. "We've taken the view that you should be able to move from one modality of communicating to another and that the notion of presence is central to the collaboration experience."
Critics might say Microsoft is tinkering around the edges with SharePoint and Office while pushing yet more functionality through the Social Connector and Office Communications Server.
Meanwhile, many enterprises view the fundamentals of e-mail and enterprise collaboration as broken. DelBene concedes most organizations want a better collaboration experience. But he doesn't buy the argument that Google's less-is-more approach -- delivering the 20% of functionality most workers actually use -- will change the game.
"Google took an approach that is confusing and isn't focused on the key [user] scenarios," DelBene said. "One of the biggest use cases for Web applications, regardless of whose product you are talking about, is viewing documents. If you receive an attachment and you're not at your PC, you'll still want a full-fidelity rendering of that document. That's a place where we're highly differentiated from anybody else."
Collaborative co-authoring is another differentiator for Microsoft, DelBene said, noting that participants in an online editing session can use either the cloud-based software or an on-premise client. He also raised the specter of regulatory compliance. "Customers trust Microsoft to have built in the features required to manage the information and secure the information as they know they were required to do on premises," he said.
It's hard to gauge how competitive Microsoft's online offerings will be given that the company has yet to detail pricing and packaging options. There's little doubt that enterprise customers contemplating hybrid deployments will look for favorable licensing combinations.
"Packaging has worked for us in the past, and it helps that we already have business relationships with most of these customers," DelBene said. "We have agreements in place, and when they're deciding whether to move entirely into the cloud or into a mixed environment, it's a natural and easy discussion for us to have with customers," he added.