After watching the reactions to last fall’s Microsoft product releases and talking to software and hardware industry executives, I’ve concluded that the practical IT pro’s approval is the most hotly pursued prize in the IT industry. It’s no surprise given the past year’s economic decline that questions about new products shifted sharply from “Is it cool?” to “Does it work?” The industry is scrambling to respond to IT pros’ wish list for economical IT solutions that work.

In fact, most IT pros have always been practical. But the industry is listening and responding to IT pros’ needs with unprecedented attentiveness. Microsoft’s evangelism about its latest releases centered on the “New Efficiency” of deploying Windows Server 2008 R2, Windows 7, and Exchange Server 2010. The themes repeated by both Microsoft and third-party vendors included saving time and money, conserving energy, and increasing productivity—in other words, improving efficiency.

The changes aren’t just catch phrases. At least in Microsoft’s case, a shift in the process has put an emphasis on developing around complete scenarios—in which IT pros and end users can complete entire workflow processes—rather than viewing releases as collections of features.

Microsoft technical fellow and long-time Windows IT Pro author Mark Russinovich, who appealed to IT pros’ practical side for years with his Winternals and Sysinternals utilities, recently observed that failing to focus on complete scenarios was one of Vista’s downfalls. “A lot of scenarios people felt were left incomplete with Vista,” Russinovich said. “It \[was\] nice and smooth up to this point, but then you’re on your own.” Russinovich contrasted this approach with the development of Windows 7, in which every component had to fit into “something useful for the customer.” (For more of Russinovich’s observations about the development of Windows 7, see “Windows 7 Under the Hood.”)

Microsoft followed a similar discipline in the development of Server 2008 R2, according to Bill Laing, Microsoft corporate vice president of the Windows Server and Solutions Division. “It’s much more important to drive complete scenarios,” Laing said. “You have to complete them.” (Watch for a full interview with Laing in the February issue.)

Laing said that Microsoft used a customer-focused design methodology that started with interviewing customers and partners and recording everything they said—in their own words rather than Microsoft’s. Laing said that a traditional pitfall of customer interviews is the tendency for the design team to interpret—and sometimes skew—the customers’ message, yielding a result that too often is “what the person who interviewed them really wanted to build rather than what the customer wanted.”

The second departure with the Server 2008 R2 and Windows 7 development approach was focusing on complete models that were “critical to quality” (CTQs, according to Laing). Rather than shipping when bugs were reduced to a specified number, the design teams focused on completing specific CTQs, such as being able to support a certain number of users in a VDI session. One workflow scenario that Laing said has drawn appreciation is the Active Directory Recycle Bin, which helps IT pros recover accidentally deleted AD objects.

Laing pointed out that many of the scenarios that emerged as most important were focused on cost savings. For example, Continental Airlines for years invested in executive lounges for its top customers. But now the typical CEO simply wants to get “from the car to plane, talking to as few people as possible,” Laing said. Continental is using the new Microsoft technology to deliver customers’ boarding passes directly to their cell phones. “People are now seeing that as a value as opposed to sitting in a lounge for two hours.”

Both Russinovich and Laing referred to a development approach with these product releases that avoided disruptive changes—again, a tactic that caters more to the IT pro’s peace of mind than to the cool factor. Laing said that Microsoft engaged with ISVs early in the process so that customers could more easily move applications into the Server 2008 R2 and Windows 7 environment without business interruptions.

Reducing power consumption was another extremely practical design objective with the new releases, resulting in core power management features such as Core Parking, which consolidates processing to the fewest number of processor cores possible and suspends inactive cores. It’s a Prius rather than Porsche mentality. “The point is power management,” Laing said. “It’s more about miles per gallon than the top speed of the car.”

As we start 2010, this practical design approach bodes well for helping IT organizations optimize operations to take advantage of the recovering economy. If hardware and software vendors can deliver solutions that save time and money, everyone wins.