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Microsoft: Friend or bulldozer?

Independent Software Vendors (ISVs) have always had a complicated relationship with Microsoft.

They build on Microsoft’s OS-and-tool platform. They also keep a wary eye as the software behemoth keeps adding to that platform. The “white space” at the top keeps getting higher and higher. That becomes ever more evident as the company pitches not just Windows and VB as a platform but Office, CRM and ERP as well. That’s one deep, (fat?) platform.

Josh Swihart, vice president of corporate marketing for K2 is in a unique position to comment on this. K2 is a Microsoft-aligned ISV that happened to specialize in workflow and business process management before Microsoft had much of its own workflow and process management embedded in products. And K2, based in Microsoft’s Redmond, Wash. backyard, remains an ISV with expertise in workflow and business process management that remains viable and growing after Microsoft put its own workflow framework into .Net 3.0.

Swihart’s got some suggestions for fruitful coexistence. (Full disclosure: this blog headline was lifted from original K2 pitch. Who could resist?)

One: Don’t always go into Redmond hat in hand. ISVs, like Microsoft, must act out of enlightened self interest. That means finding ways for the ISV — and Microsoft — to profit from their interaction.

“People are always going into Microsoft looking for money and information. If you instead go in with a plan to drive sales, that’s a much better entry,” he said

Two: Decide whether you’re going to be company that offers tools that plug into Microsoft’s platform, which is a relatively safe bet. Or,  you can position yourself as a platform provider in your own right, as K2 has done. “It’s a much bigger struggle to be a platform player but with bigger possible upside.” Swihart says.

Three: Take advantage of the huge Microsoft installed base. If a company’s product owns, say, 90% of a given market, doesn’t it make sense to work with that product? So integrate with Windows or Office if you can. And integrate well.  “If it looks like a kluge, it won’t work,” Swihart said.

Four: Let Microsoft’s field force work for you. If your product fills a gap and is aligned with Microsoft technology, and you work your relationships, you can benefit from Microsoft’s feet on the street.

Small ISVs enamored of their own cleverness, have to remember they ” don’t carry the weight of Microsoft,” Swihart said.

Microsoft recently brought K2 in to help pitch a major oil and gas company. “They wanted to get to the line-of-business folks with a problem/solution type of deck in that space so they brought us in,” he noted.

Microsoft’s typically enters larger companies through IT but in many cases, that’s overkill. For many applications, it’s better for get in front of the actual departments. And that is where ISVs with domain-expertise can help the software giant.

Five: Plug into the rest of Microsoft’s partner ecosystem. ISVs need VARs and integrators to incorporate their bits into solutions. VARs and integrators need complete soluions, not piece parts. Match made in heaven. Let Microsoft’s investment in these partners help you. Find the partners in areas where your offering makes sense and cultivate them.

Six: Assess the Microsoft portfolio and “bet where it makes sense and with the product teams that make sense for you.”

Seven: Offer customer choice. Balance the Microsoft integration with the customer’s need to work outside the stack. “We’re into the operating system and core .Net environment and the database, although there are ways around that. But beyond that, our customers can integrate with the Microsoft technologies they want to but don’t have to.

No ISV should depend wholly on Microsoft. “In cases where we have relationships that extend beyond the Microsoft stack, we’re a part of a bigger story.”

Eight: Stay ahead of the Microsoft curve. Swihart says two to five years is good. He likens this to running in front of the afore mentioned bulldozer.

The fact that some Microsoft product managers make promises in public forums that aren’t always kept can panic customers and ISVs needlessly. The razzle-dazzle PDC promises about Vista I witnessed years ago have taken their toll on ISV partners and customers ever since.

ISVs need to keep close tabs on relevant product groups. One advantage of a close working relationship with the vendor is they clue you in as to where they’re going so you can adapt.

Nine: Remember that Microsoft is big company with many fiefdoms. One group can be your best friend. Another maybe not so friendly at all. Be advised.

Ten: Remember. Things happen. Microsoft may be your ally today, then buy a competitor (or build one) and be a rival tomorrow. Forewarned is forearmed.

Many ISVs plug gaps and hope that Microsoft will buy them. Swihart says K2 wants to remain independent and focus on customer needs.

Barbara Darrow can be reached at

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