SAN DIEGO -- This year's Microsoft TechEd conference is laden with sessions that focus on the nuts-and-bolts uses of the company's existing software products, but CEO Steven Ballmer couldn't resist the urge to weigh in on the future of computing and the software maker's role in it.
During a wide-ranging keynote address Monday, Ballmer talked about security trends, spam and Web services, and he hinted that Microsoft will create a unified platform for its disparate enterprise applications.
He called efforts to create software that is more secure and more integrated "a long slog," and admitted that security vulnerabilities not only cause his company problems, they put pressure on the IT administrators who must answer to the users they serve.
"When we have issues, as we've had over the last few years with something like security, which winds up increasing total cost of ownership and decreasing productivity, that's a setback," he said.
But he said that Microsoft is showing its commitment to producing better software through its actions, such as spending $6.8 billion this year on research and development. Ballmer said only the drug company Pfizer Inc. spends more on R&D.
Integration a top priority
"Integrated innovation" was another of Ballmer's themes at TechEd, which Microsoft said has 11,000 attendees this year. He said the Longhorn version of Windows will be an example of its push to integrate its product set, and he attributed its delays to the software maker's drive to release Windows XP Service Pack 2 this year. Observers said Longhorn won't be released until late in 2006 or early in 2007.
Ballmer applauded what he called customers' "insistence on responsiveness" from Microsoft to their concerns, although he said they would reap greater productivity benefits if they more quickly adopted Redmond's latest technology and stopped demanding "features, features, features."
But he admitted that getting an installed base of 600 million to upgrade across the board isn't feasible.
"There is no way to snap our fingers … and get them all migrated to the newest releases," he said. "And, in fact, we can't count ever on having a perfect release."
Spam: 'Annoying' and 'icky'
On the issue of spam, Ballmer said, it's "an even more annoying" issue than security. He said that was apparent at last week's CEO Summit, which was attended by 130 CEOs, many of whom demanded to know when something was going to be done about it.
Ballmer, who said he feels "icky sometimes" when he sees the offensive content of spam that floods his own e-mail inbox, said the work that Microsoft is doing on e-mail authentication technology will help reduce spam by "Two, three, four orders of magnitude."
Peter Pawlak, an analyst with Kirkland, Wash.-based Directions on Microsoft, called authentication technology the key to the spam crisis, but "it doesn't make any sense unless there's one big standard."
And Microsoft appears to be heading in that direction. It recently submitted its proposed "e-mail caller ID" technology to the Internet Engineering Task Force for review, and signaled a willingness to merge it with the proposed Sender Policy Framework (SPF) standard.
"I fully believe that three-quarters of all spam will just go away, based on taking away that anonymity that the current SMTP mail provides," said Pawlak, who predicted it will be two years before authentication technology becomes a reality.
But any method that cuts down the spam problem would be welcome to Barbara Bordelon, a help desk leader in the operations support division of San Diego-based Cubic Corp.'s Defense Applications Group.
Her company provides e-mail services to U.S. armed forces at Fort Polk, La., many of whom are awaiting deployment overseas. "We're always trying to deal with spam," she said with a sigh.