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Report from Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference

I've been to several Microsoft conferences before, but they've all been technical.  This is my first time at the Partner conference and I'm finding it surprisingly productive and helpful.  While the conference is low on technical information, there are still important announcements being made here, and a high concentration of people who want to talk to each other, and who aren't bashful about wanting to make money.  Once you understand that this is the premise of the whole event, the conversations move fast, and you can get straight to the point, without having to worry that your business motives are somehow in bad taste.

I've been here two days, so the following items are not breaking news, but they're still pretty fresh, and you might find them useful.

  • BizTalk Server 2006, which was to "launch" on November 7th with Visual Studio and SQL Server 2005, but not RTM until the 1st half of calendar 2006, will apparently now only be "announced" at the November 7th event and will now launch and RTM in the first half of next year.
  • The product code named "Maestro," which ties together SQL Server Reporting Services, SQL Server Analysis Services and SharePoint, will officially be called Microsoft Scorecard Manager, and will ship in the fall.  All attendees of the WWPC got a ready to run Virtual PC image of the current beta bits.  I haven't set mine up yet but will soon and will report back.
  • The next version of InfoPath will allow deployment of forms to a Web server and provide for a full form-fill-out experience in the browser without the InfoPath client needing to be installed on the user's machine.  My take: watch for InfoPath's integration with BizTalk and SharePoint to tighten immensely and its suitability to human workflow applications to be especially high.  It will come as close to a killer app as an infrastructural product like it possibly could.
  • Microsoft CRM 3.0 will ship before the end of the year, and will supposedly be in beta open to all partners by September.  The 3.0 moniker is somewhat silly, given that the current version is 1.2.  Microsoft wants you to believe that this is the proverbial 3.0 "they got it right" version, even though it's really only the 2nd major release.  From what I saw of it today, it beats its competition and will do well on the market.  It also still leaves room for improvement.  Here's what I found out:
    • CRM 3.0 offers a total of three clients: a browser client, a "light" (thin) Outlook-based client that hits the CRM server, and a "heavy" (thick) Outlook client that runs against a local database, much like version 1.2's CRM Sales for Outlook client.  As in 1.2, even the Outlook clients are HTML based, but they are heavy-duty AJAX clients (my term, not Microsoft's).
    • Unlike 1.2, the 3.0 Outlook clients integrate tightly with Outlook's inbox, contacts and calendar.  In 3.0, the Outlook clients are 1st-class clients and the browser client is the secondary one.
    • A marketing module has been added.  I know little about it so far.
    • The thick Outlook client uses its own replication scheme, rather than SQL Server replication, supposedly making it much faster and more reliable.  For reasons I cannot fathom, this client will continue to use MSDE (2000) and not SQL Server Express (2005).  I was told the reason for this is that the CRM team believes they will RTM before SQL Server 2005 does.  While I'm intrigued that this might mean the product will be ready in October, I still think the MBS and SQL teams could and should have coordinated better on this.  I was told the server can be Yukon-based, so this inconsistency lies only with the heavy Outlook client, but I still think it's unfortunate.
    • Apparently, all non-programmable customizations are now done in the product itself; no more using MMC snap-ins for editing and publishing the schema.  I was told the Web Services API is more unified and simplified and offers greater IntelliSense support in Visual Studio.
  • All WPC attendees got a full, non-eval copy of Virtual Server 2005, and will get a copy of SQL Server 2005 (not sure which version...I'm betting Standard) when it ships.

Good stuff at this show.  IBM should watch its back, and Oracle should accelerate its Project Fusion or get ready to give up its lunch money to MBS.  Microsoft "gets" the enterprise, the desktop, and about 57 different ways to make them work together with ever-decreasing effort.  And they've got a very pumped partner community ready to bring their technology to customers.  2006 should be a very good year for the Microsoft stack.



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