Microsoft BizTalk Server is one of those products that you either instantly "get," or it leaves you scratching your head wondering what you missed. Chances are, if you're in the former category, you're employed by one of the world's largest companies and are working to integrate and manage business processes. If you're in the latter category, however, fear not: With the world getting smaller every day I have little doubt that a product such as BizTalk Server will soon become mainstream. And with the recent announcement of the release of BizTalk Server 2006, it seems to me that Microsoft is beginning that push.

So what is BizTalk Server? Microsoft describes this product as a business process management server designed to help corporations automate and optimize business processes. By automating business processes, companies can make better decisions and, ultimately, become better competitors. In other cases, companies need to make sure they're meeting increasingly complicated regulatory requirements, and they need to do so in an automated fashion. Either way, BizTalk Server and other business process management solutions allow nonprogrammers to map out and manage corporate decision making in a more abstract format than true programming languages.

Microsoft likes to highlight the fact that BizTalk Server transcends automation by concentrating on optimization as well. Highly optimized businesses processes that can access real-time data will provide businesses with the best possible market advantages. "Optimization is the key differentiator," Microsoft Product Manager Steven Martin told me during a recent briefing. "Now, we can make decisions in real time on how to improve on various processes. So we're not just automating, but also optimizing."

BizTalk Server 2006 is the fourth major version, and it follows BizTalk Server 2004. This version adds several improvements over its predecessor, including a simpler setup and deployment routine, a much-improved management console, a Business Activity Monitor (BAM) portal, and the inclusion of 23 application and technology adapters that let you use BizTalk Server in conjunction with legacy mainframes and other systems and various line-of-business (LOB) applications out of the box. Microsoft is also now packaging Host Integration Server (HIS) 2004 with BizTalk Server 2006; this server provides connectivity between Windows Server systems and data found in legacy IBM mainframes like the AS/400. Each of the BizTalk Server editions will ship in both x86 (32-bit) and x64 (64-bit) versions when the product becomes generally available in May.

However, you're not going to see BizTalk Server in many small businesses this year. BizTalk Server 2006 Standard Edition will cost $8500 and be limited to two-processor servers. And BizTalk Server 2006 Enterprise Edition retails for $30,000 but loses any processor restrictions. There's a Developer Edition available for $500.

Microsoft Delays Windows Vista, Office 2007 I had hoped to write a lot more about BizTalk Server 2006 this week, but Microsoft unleashed a startling set of announcements late last week that caused me to reevaluate a few things. First, the company announced that it would delay Windows Vista until November 2006 for certain business-oriented versions and until January 2007 for retail, PC-bundle, and consumer versions. Then, Microsoft revealed that it would delay its Office 2007 office productivity suite until January 2007 as well, to match Vista's schedule. And finally, the company announced that Steven Sinofsky, the senior vice president who was previously in charge of Microsoft Office, would be taking over future Windows development.

That's quite a series of announcements. Regarding the Vista announcement, there's not a lot to say that isn't obvious. This project has been careening out of control for years, and the only way to rein it in at this point was to cut major features (again) or delay it. However, I think it's critical to understand that the Vista delay cuts much further than the eight weeks that Microsoft revealed: Although the Vista release to manufacturing (RTM) date has moved from August 25 to October 25, the actual release date, for most customers, has edged into 2007.

Naturally, businesses weren't going to be jumping on board with Vista until several months or even years down the road, but the delay from 2006 to 2007 brings with it some insurmountable psychological connotations. Why can't Microsoft get this thing done?

I've written a lot about Vista and the need for businesses to begin evaluating when they'll want to migrate or upgrade. But now I'm beginning to wonder whether we can't all just push back any consideration of Vista in businesses for at least another year. If you're already running Windows XP with Service Pack 2 (SP2), I'm not sure that Vista will offer anything compelling in the short run. But I'm curious whether someone--anyone--has a contrary opinion with specific examples. Microsoft employees are excluded from this offer, of course.

Regarding Sinofsky, the jury is still out. Sinofsky is known for his close allegiance with Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates and his ability to regularly ship Office updates on schedule. But let's be serious here: Each Office version, from 4.2 to 95 to 97 to 2000 to XP to 2003 has basically been a minor upgrade. It's unclear how these skills will be able to transform Windows into a lean, mean, fighting machine. But I'm interested to see what he comes up with.

Next week, I'll dig a bit more deeply into BizTalk Server because I think it deserves more discussion. Hopefully, there won't be another bombshell announcement to get in the way.