Of marketing and messaging

Von Oliver Rist

Why does everything come due in April? It turns a perfectly charming month into a stomach-wrenching anxiety fest as I sit here and drop check after check into the insatiable jaws of the Internal Revenue Service, the insurance company, and the local property-tax collector"s office, plus I need to send off next year"s estimated tribute to Uncle Sam! Hell, even my annual mailbox service comes due in April. And on top of all that, Microsoft sits down and does a great job of updating Messenger 7.0.

Before I get into why that"s a pain in my nearly bankrupt neck, I want to respond to numerous reader inquiries regarding Microsoft"s recent announcement of System Center. There seems to be some confusion about what this new brand name means, so here"s the scoop: System Center was announced about a year ago and was originally intended to headline a bundle consisting of MOM (Microsoft Operations Manager) 2005 and SMS (Systems Management Server) 2003 -- pretty much everything you need to build a center for your Microsoft systems, hence the brilliant moniker.

Since then, Microsoft"s marketing arm has latched onto the System Center name and given System Center a larger role. The original bundle idea was dropped and System Center has turned into an umbrella brand name, similar to how Microsoft used the BackOffice brand name a few years back. System Center will now be a prefix to several Microsoft server products, including SMS 2003, MOM 2005, Data Protection Manager 2006, and Reporting Manager 2005. All of these will now have the System Center brand name etched on the shrink-wrap to give the whole thing a suite-style feel.

Back to Messenger 7.0. It"s a real step up from its previous version. Damn! Think slick. Real slick. First off, the interface is even more intuitive and now comes with a whole slew of new icons and little animations and avatars. That"s bad enough, but Microsoft has also done noticeable work on Messenger"s audio and video capabilities. These used to be barely tolerable and were easily rendered useless by most firewalls. But Microsoft has rubbed digital Vaseline on this traffic so now it slips through most corporate firewall meshes just fine -- unless you go to the trouble of specifically blocking it. Worse, both audio and video quality show notable improvement, not only in audio quality but also in terms of smooth streaming and response time. Curses!

Now for the really insidious part: Messenger now integrates even more closely into MSN, with fast links to MSN"s music store and blogging site, and even to the MSN Search engine. All this is truly sexy. The system installs easily and really seems to work. Dig into it and you"ll find all kinds of cute little surprises such as "winks." These are tiny animations you send in the middle of an IM conversation so as to instill in the recipient the desire for either winking back or a nasty suicide.

I"m a curmudgeon for hating it, I know. But it"s April. Uncle Sam just finished pillaging me, and I"ve already gotten two client requests to "re-evaluate" their policies toward IM traffic and MSN access at work. ("After all, it came with all our PCs, so shouldn"t we be using it?") I"m going to argue rationally, they"re going to respond irrationally, I"ll wind up giving them what they"re asking for, and in six months they"ll be yelling because all their employees are downloading music, writing blogs, and "winking" at each other instead of working.

Then again, I get to charge them by the hour, which is just what Uncle Sam ordered. (They ought to portray that guy with a bib, knife, and fork.) And it all came due in April. Mayhap there is wisdom in Redmond.