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Microsoft walks the downturn-messaging tightrope

Is Microsoft poised to join other tech vendors in announcing dismal second quarter earnings or is the company going to yet again manage to meet or beat its traditionally conservative guidance (this time against seemingly impossible odds)?

Is Microsoft poised to join other tech vendors in announcing dismal second quarter earnings or is the company going to yet again manage to meet or beat its traditionally conservative guidance (this time against seemingly impossible odds)?

More and more Wall Street analysts are revising their Microsoft earnings projections downward, noting that almost every tech vendor is falling on hard times in this economy. But Microsoft management is offering mixed messages about the company's prospects.

Bob Muglia, the head of Microsoft's Server and Tools Unit, told News.com this week that IT budgets are "cramped," and that server growth is in the one- to two-percent range.

But just yesterday, on December 11, Bob Kelly, the Microsoft Corporate Vice President for Infrastructure Services Marketing, told attendees of a Barclays Capital Tech Conference that Microsoft's Server and Tools business is well-positioned for continued growth. (I listened to a Webcast of Kelly's remarks.)

The Server and Tools business at Microsoft has been a star performer for Microsoft, Kelly said. The unit encompasses Windows Server, SQL Server, Microsoft's myriad development tools, System Center management tools and Forefront security products, among other wares.

"A market like this plays to our strengths," Kelly told Barclays conference attendees.

Specifically, Kelly emphasized Microsoft's traditional low-cost/high-volume positioning as helping it edge out some of its "niche" competitors. He said Microsoft is continuing to increase the percentage of premium (and more expensive) versions of its various server products that it sells.

Kelly said if Microsoft's Server and Tools business, coupled with its other enterprise software wares, was broken out separately, it would be the "fifth largest software company on the planet." He cited databases, security and identity, management, server operating systems and dev tools as all maintaining very high projected growth over the next three years. And Kelly highlighted recurring annuity revenues that Microsoft gets from its Software Assurance licensing plan as helping Microsoft "better weather these conditions." He said that Microsoft's year-on-year unearned revenues in enterprise software are up more than 28 percent.

Another area where Microsoft is balancing precariously on the messaging tightrope is around software vs. services.

Microsoft's uber-message is that it is all about Software+Services. Indeed, the company has been introducing over the past few years various kinds of service adjuncts and/or alternatives to just about every software product it sells. But what does -- and should -- the company tell enterprise customers who are torn between choosing SharePoint Online, at xxx per user per month, and a full-blown license for SharePoint Server (plus accompanying client-access licenses), worth tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars?

Microsoft execs have said publicly that within five years, the company is expecting 50 percent of Exchange and SharePoint usage to be "serviced from the cloud." But many enterprise users are still balking at moving their data to a Microsoft- (or even partner-managed) datacenter, due to thorny compliance and privacy concerns. And then there's the fact that Microsoft -- just like Google -- is putting some of its datacenter-expansion projects on a slower track (and in some cases, outright hold)....

So which is it? Are Microsoft's enterprise software and services businesses managing just fine, thanks? Or are tough times still tough, even for a company with a dominant -- though threatened -- leadership position in many enterprise segments? Is the 'Soft's future softer than many have thought?