Communal computing -- Microsoft courts Windows community

You can learn a lot from a penguin. Microsoft, taking a cue from the communal nature of open-source, is polishing its people skills and reaching out to Windows users. The goal? To show that even a software giant can have humanity.

Using online events and other activities, Microsoft continues to step up efforts to reach out to enterprise customers. The goal is to get product feedback earlier in the development process.

One such activity was held earlier this month, when Microsoft hosted a blue ribbon panel that included about 15 individuals who are in leadership roles at user groups throughout the country. Microsoft representatives spent two days prodding the customer leaders for ideas and also showing them some future products, said one regional user group president who was there.

At the meeting, Microsoft offered a special promotion for user group members who attend the Windows Server 2003 launch event. Each person will get a free copy of Windows Server 2003 Enterprise Edition and Windows Server 2003 book.

The user group leaders also learned that Microsoft plans to create a special user group Web page, from which user group presidents can download presentations for meetings, schedule user group-specific webcasts, and request and schedule Microsoft executives to speak at their meetings, one source said.

Tim King, product manager for the Web and community for the enterprise management division at Microsoft, said that the meeting is a subset of a large community initiative across the company –- a strategy driven by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. The purpose of the recent meeting was to engage the larger user groups in discussion and learn more about what they need from Microsoft, King said.

"Compared with what we did in the past, there is a significant amount of resources being put into this," King said. "The more we talk to customers, the better we understand them, and we can create better products."

Microsoft product groups are making it a priority to create stronger relationships with customers in hopes of somehow mimicking the community spirit common in the open-source world. In a recent interview highlighting the progress of Microsoft's own Shared Source Initiative (SSI), Jason Matusow, who manages the SSI effort, said that Microsoft is definitely interested in emulating how the open-source community exchanges ideas.

Right now, Microsoft's community activities have several goals, King said. The company wants to boost customer satisfaction by doing a better job of educating customers and, of course, by making better products.

It's hard to measure improvements in relationship building, but Microsoft is planning a series of steps that it hopes will result in better ties to customers over time.

One improvement includes adding more Microsoft MVPs (Most Valuable Professionals) to its roster and giving them better support. In the enterprise management group alone, King said that Microsoft will add three or four MVPs to the six that are already in place.

Microsoft is also looking at how it supports news groups. King said that Microsoft is encouraging its employees to focus on the forums that draw the largest amounts of activity so they can help the most customers. Microsoft encourages its staff to support the various newsgroups by answering some of the toughest questions, but the vast number of sites makes it difficult to know where to start, King said.

Microsoft is also increasing the number of online events, including webcasts, and has added support for other events that are not necessarily home grown in Redmond.

"Our goal is to increase customer interaction -- to get customer problems taken into account at the right time in the cycle," King said. "In the past, customer engagement had occurred too late."

To assist customers and improve the flow of information, Microsoft's enterprise management group is also building a community Web site to consolidate information on Windows manageability, whether it be information provided by Microsoft or through a third party, such as MyITForum.com, a community site that is popular with Systems Management Server administrators and individuals who have expertise in other Windows manageability platforms.

Rod Trent, president of My.ITforum.com, noted that Microsoft communities are as large -- if not larger than -- most open-source communities. It was not until the emergence of the open-source community that Microsoft realized the gains that could be had from helping user groups that have grown up around their products.

But Trent said customers will benefit from Microsoft's involvement only as long as the company remains a facilitator and does not try to manage the group.

"Online communities and organized user groups represent the bulk of Microsoft's business customers," Trent said. "By assisting these groups, Microsoft can build a high level of trust and offer better support than they've been able to do in the past.

"As Microsoft individuals become 'personalities' in the communities, customers will realize that the monolithic company is really just comprised of normal people who really want to do the best for their customers."

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

Interview: MS says open-source model 'definitely worth emulating'

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