Microsoft's grip on desktop services is slipping

Sap CEO Hasso Plattner recently made a statement that, for the chairman of an ERP company, seemed bizarre, albeit not completely surprising. Plattner told the massive assemblage at the opening keynote of Sapphire last month in Philadelphia, "We want to control the desktop.

Sap CEO Hasso Plattner recently made a statement that, for the chairman of an ERP company, seemed bizarre, albeit not completely surprising. Plattner told the massive assemblage at the opening keynote of Sapphire last month in Philadelphia, "We want to control the desktop."

Plattner didn't mean controlling the desktop interface of SAP's own ERP applications, as the company indeed has done for a long time. He meant to control the access to all users' applications, from e-mail to calendaring to procurement. SAP hopes to accomplish this through mySAP.com, a portal interface to ERP applications, third-party applications, Web services and content.

Plattner & Co. seem confident they can pull it off. But so does every other software company that has launched a portal strategy ... which is just about every other software company. SAP and others may not end up "controlling" all the users, but they certainly can and should, over time, grab control of the way all SAP users access the rest of their productivity apps.

That a heretofore plodding giant of a software company can make a play for the desktop in this way shows just how far away from big, desktop, client/server computing the Internet has taken us; how much less control Microsoft has over our applications and computing infrastructure; and why Microsoft still seems to be running scared when it comes to the Web.

Windows remains the underlying operating system on most client PCs, and more computers use Internet Explorer to browse the Web and connect to portal-based applications than Netscape's Communicator. But that's where the influence ends, and that's very bad for Microsoft, since now there is less and less money in the OS and browser pieces of the puzzle than there is in the services that are accessed with them.

As a favorite movie character of mine says, "Follow the money." That's what Microsoft has been trying to do in fits and starts, fairly unsuccessfully, for the past five years with its constant reinventing of itself and its online presence. For example, the latest version of MSN.com, announced late last month, was by my count the fourth reincarnation of the service that pretends to challenge AOL.

It's a credit to Microsoft that such a large company can transform itself so often. But so much shifting makes users uncertain about where they may end up if they go with Microsoft. And since it is all vaporware, slideware and marketecture, each new rendition is behind the curve by the time it becomes available.

The latest MSN seems so important to Microsoft that officials have gone beyond their usual distortion about how important the Web is. Now Microsoft says we still aren't getting enough of the Web and has come up with ways to convince us that we need more of the Web "everyday." The next iteration no doubt will include the slogan "every minute of every day."

Back at Sapphire, Bill Gates videoconferenced in to talk about the contributions Microsoft is making to SAP's endeavors. Most of that work is being done on the server with XML. Ironically, Microsoft could end up controlling more users from that position than it does from the desktop. So, despite its drifting message about Internet services, it still seems to know how to connect those services—and their servers—together. And that, I think, is where Microsoft will leave its most lasting legacy.

Who does control the desktop? Write me at scot_petersen@zd.com.

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