Microsoft might have lost its focus on serving the IT community during the past several years, but the company is now making a valiant effort to get back into this group's good graces. In "The Soul of Windows," January 2003, http://www.winnetmag.com, InstantDoc ID 27392, I wrote that Microsoft was in danger of losing support from the IT community because of two factors.

First, Microsoft's marketing messages to the IT community are unclear. Advertising-driven concepts such as "One Degree of Separation" don't mean much to administrators. The company lacks a clear vision for Windows administrators.

Second, Microsoft takes its enterprise IT customers for granted. The company assumes we'll all upgrade to the newest technology simply because Microsoft ships it. Microsoft's presumption might have cost the company more than a billion dollars in delayed revenue because the company is still trying to get 4.5 million Windows NT servers migrated to Windows Server 2003 or Windows 2000. As several readers commented in letters to Windows & .NET Magazine in response to my article, Microsoft assumed that NT users would upgrade, so the company didn't bother to communicate with IT pros or advertise to them.

Since I wrote that column, I've learned about several projects Microsoft has initiated to better serve its IT customers' needs. The company launched some of these projects long before I wrote my column and initiated others after my column appeared*at least one in response to my column. (For example, Microsoft invited me to present readers' responses to my article to a group of eight Microsoft executives.)

Microsoft's community-building efforts will start with user group representatives. First, Microsoft has formed a 15-member IT Leader Advisory Council whose purpose is "to improve and foster Microsoft's two-way relationship with the IT groups and meet a set of shared objectives." One of the group's first tasks is to determine these shared objectives. The council members include presidents from 14 of the largest IT user groups, plus me. Our job is to help Microsoft assess the needs of Windows IT user groups and promote the Windows community. Microsoft intentionally focuses on a small subset of the IT professional community. The idea is to develop programs that work, then widen the circle based on the successes of the smaller group.

As a result of our first meeting, Microsoft agreed to use the Windows 2003 launch events to help promote the user groups that the IT Leader Advisory Council represents. The council members were able to offer their user group members a free 25-user edition of Windows 2003, Enterprise Edition as well as a Windows 2003 book from Microsoft Press. To get these products, members simply had to attend a specific regional launch event and the subsequent user group meeting in that region. That $2500-plus value helped boost user group memberships in those supported regions and generated goodwill among IT administrators.

In addition, Microsoft is planning to fund and conduct an exclusive Webcast and 1-day training event for each of the council members' users groups. Finally, Microsoft adopted the council members into its existing Most Valuable Professional (MVP) program. MVPs are actively involved in the online Windows community. You can see a list of Windows 2003 MVPs at http://www.microsoft.com/windowsserver2003/community/mvp. Microsoft is beefing up its support of the MVP program and corresponding Windows newsgroups, which in turn will boost the Windows IT community online. Again, many of these programs will first benefit the user group council members; then, Microsoft will extend successful programs to the entire Windows IT community.

Beyond user groups, Microsoft is sponsoring regional road shows and Webcasts that provide practical information for migrating from NT Server to Windows 2003 and Win2K. Microsoft intends to triple the number of Windows-related Webcasts available on Microsoft's Web site in an effort to boost the knowledge of the IT professional community.

Microsoft Renews Its Vows
As evidence of Microsoft's renewed interest in IT professionals, I've noticed changes in Microsoft's TV ad campaigns. The new ads show an IT administrator getting excited about the technical reasons he successfully upgraded to Windows 2003, then translating those reasons into terms his chief financial officer (CFO) would understand: "It saved us 1 million dollars." By aiming an ad at both IT administrators and CFOs, Microsoft is hitting what's really happening in the market. IT professionals know they have to go the extra mile to justify every major IT capital expenditure and make the business payoffs quickly obvious to even the toughest CFO.

Microsoft knows it has a long way to go to regain the trust of Windows administrators. But the expressed commitment from senior Microsoft executives is encouraging, and it's starting to bear some fruit. I applaud Microsoft for its phase-one efforts to reach out to the IT professional community, and I want to see this effort grow in the future.

Phase-two efforts will include a rollout of Load Fests, events at which user group members can load Windows 2003 and other Microsoft products on their own machines in a coached session, similar to the Linux community's InstallFest.

If you have specific ideas about how Microsoft can improve relations with the Windows administrator community, I'd like to hear them. Through the IT Leader Advisory Council, we now have a forum we can use to communicate with Microsoft representatives who can act on those ideas.