For the 7,000 or so Microsoft partners descending on Boston for this week's Worldwide Partner Conference, delays in the release of Windows Vista and Office 2007 could leave them feeling like a shop unable to stock its shelves with goods.

And some of those partners – ranging from resellers that do custom installations and upgrades to independent software vendors that create third-party add-ons to Microsoft software – are wondering what to do now. "Every [value-added reseller] wants to hear how we're going to bridge the gap and continue to make money," said Ric Opal, vice-president of Peters & Associates, a 50-employee Microsoft systems integrator in Illinois.

Opal, who plans to attend the conference, which runs from today until Thursday at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, said his small to mid-size enterprise customers tend to hold off on major Microsoft software upgrades for several years after their release in order to assess reliability and impact.

Microsoft's oft-delayed Vista, which at one point was due out in late 2003, as well as delays in the release of Office, aren't helping his cause.

"Sure, there are always early adopters. But right now, a lot of [Windows] NT 4.0 has been updated, a lot of NetWare has been updated," Opal said. "There is still ample opportunity, but it's less than there was a year ago."

Last October, an independent study conducted by Yankee Group of 700 companies with fewer than 1,000 employees showed that about half were already running some version of Windows 2003 Server on the back end. Just 15 percent were still running Windows NT 4.0 Server, and less than 5 percent were still running Novell's NetWare.

Microsoft views the same statistics and sees the glass as half-full. "If the whole world were already on Windows Server 2003, or on SharePoint, or Dynamics, then that would be a great question," said Ryan Gavin, director of platform strategy for Microsoft. "Maybe the early adopter fruit is gone. But the opportunities are still great."