Microsoft's push to expand Microsoft Office from a set of productivity applications into a platform for building composite applications is gaining ground, with more than 200 ISV-created "Office Business Applications" (OBAs) now available.
At last week's Worldwide Partner Conference, Microsoft launched a new Web site, OBACentral.com, and an OnRamp program to showcase the tools and marketing support it offers around a platform that partners say could make a dramatic difference in the enterprise applications market.
Content management technology developer Open Text is the latest ISVs to use Microsoft's OBA tools to build around Office as a front-end user interface for tapping back-office enterprise data. It recently released Livelink ECM Customer Information Management, a tool for accessing SAP data through Microsoft applications like Outlook.
Open Text, based in Waterloo, Ontario, developed Livelink to address a customer pain point it repeatedly encountered: the need to move out of applications like Outlook and go rummaging around in CRM, financial and supply-chain systems to dig out data like order numbers and delivery schedules.
"We figured 'we have all the information to solve that problem, we just have it in the wrong systems,'" said Jens Rabe, OpenText's vice president of Microsoft applications and solutions. "What we found really appealing is that you give end users the ability to get to that data through the Office UI."
Open Text client ThyssenKrupp Nirosta, a stainless steel manufacturer, is already using Livelink to enable its employees to access shipping details, contracts and purchase orders directly within Outlook 2007. Using Microsoft's OBA tools saved Open Text the work of creating its own application infrastructure to pull the SAP data, Rabe said.
"It takes away the burden from us of coming up with our own front-end clients," he said. "We can focus on the underlying business problems."
Microsoft debuted its OBA strategy at last year's TechEd conference. Since then, it's steadily built out support offerings, including reference specifications and quick-start development packs.
While OBAs have so far been an under-the-radar effort, Microsoft is committing several million dollars in marketing, sales, and technical resources in an effort to draw greater attention to the possibilities they offer. One of the feature requests Microsoft fields most often from systems integrators is for a way to enable deeper integration between Outlook and back-office systems like Siebel, according to Sanjay Parthasarathy, corporate vice president of Microsoft's developer and platform evangelism group. OBA tools are Microsoft's answer.
"I basically think every ISV needs to have an OBA solution and every enterprise application needs to be built as an OBA," Parthasarathy said.
The highest-profile OBA project is Duet, the Microsoft Office/SAP integration tool Microsoft and SAP developed jointly. In turning Office into the UI for accessing SAP data, Duet illustrated the development path Microsoft hopes more ISVs will pursue -- one that potentially alleviates user frustrations in having to master multiple enterprise applications, and also advances Microsoft's march toward a greater presence in back-office enterprise applications.
OBAs will be most relevant to ISVs looking to incorporate the tools into their own application development, but even solution providers who don't build their own applications may find the platform increasingly pertinent. InCycle Software President Claude Remillard is taking a close look at the OBA platform, which he expects a number of InCycle's clients to take advantage of. Based in Montreal, InCycle specializes in .Net development consulting services.
Remillard sees the OBA toolset as one of an increasing number of platform alternatives for application development, which now also include technologies like Microsoft's Expression suite and forthcoming Silverlight platform for rich Web application development.
"The days of only building enterprise applications in C are gone," Remillard said. "We're developing an evaluation process to help our customers decide which set of tools to develop in. We'll also provide training and services around all the stacks."