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A letter from Canada

Press trips hosted by technology companies – especially American software companies – are usually formulaic affairs. Journalists are flown half-way around the world in business class, are put up in a skyscraper hotel straight out of a 1970s disaster movie, conduct a couple of interviews with company executives and customers, and then get down to the serious business of being plied with booze.

In July it was Microsoft’s turn to be descended upon by hacks as technology journalists were flown to Toronto, care of Messrs Gates and Ballmer, for Microsoft’s Worldwide Partner Conference 2004.

But Microsoft does things slightly differently where conferences are concerned. As you would expect from the world’s largest software company with a massive cash surplus ($75bn at last reckoning), Microsoft didn’t make itself rich by flying hacks business class. Even chairman Bill Gates refuses to pay to fly at the pointy end of the aircraft. (Of course, as one Microsoft manager told Financial Director, it’s amazing how many times Gates gets upgraded – twice – when he reaches check-in.)

Microsoft’s Worldwide Conference, being an event primarily for its partners and customers rather than a dedicated press and analyst event, was never going to be a run-of-the-mill jolly, anyway, as more than 6,000 colour-co-ordinated, polo shirt wearing people crammed into an ice hockey stadium for a mutual backslapping session. The delegates whooped and hollered as the house band played Don Henley covers and Microsoft’s own rock anthem Velocity; CEO Steve Ballmer leapt about the stage yelling how “excited” he was to be there; and software engineers and techie journalists earnestly swapped stories about pieces of code and service packs over coffee and muffins.

OK, so it is easy to mock Microsoft’s sweet, Chardonnay-style culture – especially when its executives get the words ‘partners rock!’ tattooed (henna only) on their arms after conference parties. A video of company execs doing a rendition of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody (cue more whoops and hollers from the audience) during keynote speeches does not appeal to UK journalists’ sensibilities either.

But don’t be fooled. Despite its West Coast techie heritage, Microsoft has a serious message for FDs of medium and large business – it wants their custom and is prepared to invest large amounts of money to get it. Having bought midmarket financial applications companies Navision, Great Plains and Axapta for a handful of billions in the past couple of years – and holding serious talks with SAP about a possible takeover of the German giant – Microsoft has started to shift its focus from desktop operating systems to business information.

Ballmer made a point of highlighting Microsoft’s Business Solutions division in his Toronto keynote speech: “I have tremendous enthusiasm for what we’re doing with Microsoft Business Solutions,” he said. “We’ve got a leading position and a global base. We just need to drive, drive, drive, and there is a world of opportunity out there.”

MBS currently contributes about $700m a year to the Microsoft pot, but Ballmer insists its high-end business applications and financial software will become a multibillion-dollar business over the next few years. And Ballmer has recognised that Microsoft’s existing desktop expertise is not going to get them there.

“We’re trying to make sure we’re thoughtful and considerate (to customers),” Ballmer said. “We bought the expertise in ERP and supply chain with Great Plains and Navision.” MBS is being allowed to get on with the job in hand, without interference from its parent. And even though they have picked up some Microsoft lingo (MBS executives were also “excited to be here”), the people selling and servicing Microsoft’s financial software products are the same ones who were at Great Plains and Navision.

Microsoft is still very much a Californian tech company built on its desktop software – and no amount of large enterprise acquisitions will change that. “We are still called Micro-soft, not Macro-hard, Micro-services or Micro-printers,” said Ballmer. But it is a serious company with serious intentions to get FD business. So don’t expect teenage geeks in T-shirts to start implementing your million-pound financial software systems just yet.

And if you are still not convinced that a PC software company can pull off a move into business applications, take Ballmer up on his word: “I’m If you write me, I’ll write you back,” he said. “We’re there for you baby, 100%. Let’s go make a piece of history.”

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