Bill Gates' decision to step side and concentrate on Microsoft's hosted applications business should provide some clear direction for the software giant's lagging 'apps on tap' strategy.
Microsoft last week added Exchange to the applications being tested by hosts around the world, including BT. But two months after the trial began, there is little evidence of progress, even on key issues such as pricing.
Analysts said Gates' decision to hand over the reigns as chief executive to Steve Ballmer, the former president of Microsoft, was largely a reaction to the anticipated breakup of the company by the US Department of Justice.But placing Gates at the helm of its internet-based applications business will undoubtedly give the vendor a boost in this area.
In his new role as chief software architect, Gates is planning to announce this spring a new set of hosted products and services, dubbed Next Generation Windows Services. These products will include a new user interface, file system, and development approach.
Who's a clever boy, then?
But with the software giant's hosted applications not expected until the second half of this year, some commentators believe the vendor is moving too slowly. One Microsoft watcher, who asked to not be named, said: "Microsoft has been very clever. The BT partnership was a great vapour press announcement - Microsoft knew BT would not do anything with it. BT is unsure how the partnership is going to dominate, but Microsoft knows it has to be in this market."
Jeremy Gittins, Microsoft productivity group marketing manager, said the BT test is still in its early days. "The guys are at a point where they are about to implement early trials. A lot of work so far has been Microsoft partner communication. It has not been used by customers so far."
With the addition of Exchange Server 5.5 services to the portfolio of hosted applications being tested, and plans to test Exchange 2000 later this year, Microsoft announced plans for a pilot scheme offering Office applications on tap in November with BT and others.
"I believe hosting applications around mail is going to be big. Many customers do not want to manage their own mail exchange, they want it managed by a third party," said Gittins.
He said he could not say whether customers will save money in the long term using hosted applications, until the service providers set their prices.
Richard Wendland, an analyst at research group Durlacher, said: "A hosted Exchange solution will be delivered at a price that is lower than it would be for companies deploying Exchange."
ASP, the ideal alternative
However, whether it would be more economical for larger businesses is still a grey area, said Gittins. "This business model is untried and unproven. But lots of partners see a big opportunity for business in this sector. It depends on the nature of your business. If it is geographically fragmented, ASP [application service provision] could be more effective."
Microsoft's ASP products will be a key part of its SME portal service, called BCentral, due to be launched in the UK in the next three months.
Microsoft is a late starter in this area, with Virgin, MCI Worldcom, BT and others already offering portals for SMEs, including connectivity packages, exclusive business information and advice.
Paul Tollet, manager of Microsoft's SME customer unit, said: "Clearly we are not the first up and running, but I think we will have compelling content above what our rivals offer today."
Cotton seedling freezes to death as Chang'e-4 shuts down for the Moon's 14-day lunar night
Fortnite easily out-earns PUBG, Assassin's Creed Odyssey and Red Dead Redemption 2 in 2018
Meteor showers as a service will be visible for about 100 kilometres in all directions
Saturn's rings only formed in the past 100 million years, suggests analysis of Cassini space probe data
New findings contradict conventional belief that Saturn's rings were formed along with the planet about 4.5 billion years ago