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Fri 17 Nov 2006 04:00 PM

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Windows and the world

Microsoft's COO Kevin Turner speaks to Andrew White about the software giant's new operating system Windows Vista.

I’m not a person that has joined a lot of different companies in my career,” says Kevin Turner, almost apologetically.

Granted, Turner’s CV is short. It’s also stellar. The COO of Microsoft has worked for just two firms, joining US retail giant Walmart as a cashier 20 years ago – an inauspicious first rung from which he has climbed to the very top echelons of the corporate ladder. Still only 40, Turner now leads a global organisation of over 35,000 employees.

Turner is officially in the Middle East to launch Microsoft’s latest initiative in the region, the Imagine Cup. More than 65,000 students from 100 countries are competing this year, adapting their technology skills to the advancement of education. Now in its fifth year, the competition is accepting applications from the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait for the first time.

“It’s a fairly new programme, and it’s really gained a lot of momentum,” says Turner. “We want it to be a truly global event for students who want to utilize technology to help change the world. We have enormous capability here in the region, and we’re excited to be a part of that.”

Yet whilst Turner may be in the Gulf to champion Microsoft’s latest innovation initiative, his eyes – and those of the world – are inevitably trained on the end of the month, when the software giant will fire a two-pronged assault on planet PC. Once more, it’s Microsoft’s ambition to change the world.

Windows Vista - the latest incarnation of Microsoft’s all-conquering operating system - is scheduled to hit office PCs at the end of November, and is undoubtedly the marquee name in a double bill also featuring the 2007 edition of Microsoft’s ubiquitous Office applications software. These are crucial days for Microsoft, and for Turner.

“We are launching Vista, as well as the 2007 Office system, from a business standpoint at the end of this month, and then for consumers after the first of next year,” he says.

“It’s a tremendous time for Microsoft. We’re super-excited about these transformational operational system launches – we don’t have those every year, and certainly the Vista launch is one that we’ve been waiting on,” says Turner, without a dash of hyperbole.

“With these two operating systems coming out over the next few weeks, it’s a unique opportunity for us to bring into the marketplace over US$20bn in prior years’ research and development spend,” he continues. “Microsoft spends between US$6bn and US$7bn a year in research and development, more than any technology company in the world, and so this is a really exciting time for us to be able to bring this into the market.”

This moment has been a long time coming for Microsoft, who first began development of the system way back in May 2001. Yet the initial late-2003 launch date came and went, with Microsoft finally stumbling into the testing phase in the middle of last year. In September 2005, the firm admitted that development of Vista was “crashing into the ground.”

Nevertheless, Turner is philosophical at the thought of two of Microsoft’s hottest properties crashing onto the market simultaneously. “It’s just how the development cycles hit,” he says with a shrug. “Certainly from a Vista standpoint it would have been nice if we’d had it out a year or two earlier, but the fact is that they just fell on top of one another, which is great for our field, and great for our customers.”

Yet Microsoft’s one-two punch has already left some competitors reeling. In particular, there has been much mud slinging from PC security software firms disappointed that Microsoft appears to be cutting them out of the loop, in order to consolidate and grow its own share of the security software market. As a result of Microsoft’s refusal to allow security software firms access to the operating system’s ‘kernel’, big names such as McAfee and Symantec are already buzzing angrily against Windows Vista.

“There are two things about security that you should know,” counters Turner. “One is that we’ve made a lot of progress in making our products more secure over the last few years. We’ve put a lot of intensity around that, adding a lot to the security rhythm and cadence. The exciting thing is that with Windows Vista and the 2007 Office system, we actually have security built into the product, so it becomes more of a foundational thing in these products.”

Moreover, he admits, Microsoft is targeting a serious slice of the security software market thriving on its own operating systems.

“The second part is that we’ve improved enough from a security standpoint that we can now put things in place to be able to monetize it,” he continues. “So we’ve got some exciting new products coming out from a security standpoint to allow us to be able to take advantage, and move to more of a proactive stance around security, versus a reactive stance - which is where we’ve been and where we’re transitioning from.”

So will customers be able to disregard the host of security options available to them on the shelves of any self-respecting software store? “We’d certainly hope that you’d look at the Microsoft [security] products first. There will be some similarities to security programmes that are already out there in the marketplace and there’ll be some things that are unique to what we do at Microsoft,” says Turner, cagily, before warming again to a familiar theme – that of market consolidation.

“There’s no reason that we should simply allow other people to monetize security products on our products,” he insists. “This is an opportunity for us to make our products safer and more secure. That’s one of the founding principles of Windows Vista – it’s a safer experience, a more secure experience, and a great user interface. In short, we develop solutions that our customers feel safe and secure in the utilization of.”

Turner’s confidence is anathema to other security software programmers. In Europe, Symantec has admitted opening “a dialogue” with the EU over its concerns, whilst just last month, McAfee lost patience and threw a very public tantrum.

“For an innovative security risk management vendor like McAfee, that offers its customers comprehensive security protection, full and unfettered access to the kernel is vital if we are to protect users as they are currently protected with XP,” read the apoplectic statement. Turner, it appears, is unaffected and unbowed by such agitation.

“We’re actively working through with most security software firms to try to reach some amicable agreement on the access,” he says. “The other part is that the more open you make it, it actually puts vulnerability into the product. So there’s a real balance there, a fine line that we’re trying to walk because we don’t want to compromise the product for our customers and the consumer marketplace, as well as we want to make sure that we’re doing the right thing from a legal standpoint.

“That balance is something that you constantly work on - it’s not a destination,” he reiterates. “The products continue to evolve, so it is something you have to have an ongoing dialogue around.”

The software giant is itself, of course, evolving. Last summer, the founder and CEO of Microsoft, Bill Gates, announced that he is to step back from his day-to-day running of the firm over a two-year transitional period. Yet according to Turner, the world’s richest man has no intention of letting his pace slacken. “Over the next two years, Bill’s going to work 150% of the time at Microsoft. Certainly I haven’t seen a slowdown or a drop-off in his involvement and activity,” he chuckles. “Even post-two-years, Bill will still be the chairman, he’ll still be the founder, and he’ll still be giving us a lot of good advice and guidance. It’s in his blood.”

That Gates is even able to contemplate a “reordering of [his] priorities” – the CEO’s words – is a tribute to the strength of the management team he has assembled at Microsoft. Turner is a key component of the Senior Leadership Team, and a vociferous advocate of the team ethos.
“We’re part of a team, and the fact of the matter is that the sum of us is stronger than any one individual,” he insists. “It’s a very collaborative and open group that comes together to help steer the company from a strategic direction standpoint.”

Moreover, Turner is also adamant that the customer is more than an equal partner in determining Microsoft’s development path. “The matter of fact is that we’re allowing the customer to lead those decisions from an investment standpoint, and from a development standpoint,” he says. “We’re generating a lot of activity within ourselves, and we subscribe to the fact that we have to be changing internally faster than the world’s changing externally, or we become obsolete.”

Nevertheless, the fact that Turner has one hand on Microsoft’s tiller is even more impressive when you consider that the firm’s last COO, Rick Belluzzo, departed back in 2002. At the time Gates’ number two, Steve Ballmer, insisted that the post was archaic and would not be filled again. Yet if the weight of the past is weighing on Turner, he’s not letting the strain show.

“I certainly was aware of people that had my job prior to me coming to Microsoft, so I had eyes wide open getting into this situation,” he grins. “I don’t plan on joining another company. I hope, health willing, that in ten years I’m still out meeting customers, talking to our people, listening to the field, and helping steer Microsoft in the right direction.”

It appears that Turner is determined to keep that glittering CV short, but very, very sweet.

"Microsoft spends as much as US$7bn a year in R&D, more than any technology company in the world"

"Security is one of the founding principles of Windows Vista"

"Over the next two years, Bill’s going to work 150% of the time at Microsoft"

Boxing clever: the rise of the Xbox 360

“The Xbox 360 is the successor to Microsoft’s Xbox video game console. It is the first console to be released in the seventh generation of game consoles, sold out completely at release and has since sold 6 million consoles worldwide. The Xbox 360’s been an amazing success. We sold everything we could make last year, and we look forward to this Christmas, when having enough product will mean that we can really grow our share. It’s been amazing.

“The Xbox Live platform, part of Xbox 360, has millions of subscribers, and that software as a service is one of the things that we’re most proud of. We’re very happy with the position we’ve made over the last year with the Xbox 360, and we believe this Christmas will be even more transformational.

“There’s plenty of competition out there - Sony still had Playstation 2’s in the marketplace, and Nintendo still had gaming systems in the marketplace. It’s all about who’s got the best experience, and who’s really going to create something that the customer wants. That’s why we like the Xbox 360 platform, and that’s why we believe that the gamers, regardless of the age group, enjoy the experience.

“The Live component of Xbox is a competitive advantage that we have, being first in the marketplace with it. But I also think that shared experience of being able to play games with people in all different parts of the world, is a unique offering that solidifies our commitment to software as a service.”

Icons: Walton v GatesBefore joining Microsoft, Turner worked closely with one of the legends of US retail, Walmart founder Sam Walton. Now, he counts the world’s richest man, Bill Gates, as a close friend and colleague.
“I feel very lucky to have worked with Sam Walton and now Bill Gates, arguably two of the best entrepreneurs of our generation. There are a lot of similarities. One of them is this passion that we can always do better. Sam Walton called it ‘having a divine discontent’, and one of Microsoft’s ‘six values’ as a company is being self-critical without being demotivating.
“Both Sam when he was alive, and certainly Bill today, come into work every single day thinking that there’s something we can do better, and that we can continue to improve, no matter how good we are. It’s having the courage to reinvent something that is successful, which I think makes them special. It’s been quite an education, and quite a unique vantage point, that I’ve been able to work and learn from both of those very talented leaders. I feel very blessed in that regard.”

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