Microsoft Puts Apps Business On Same Page

Since buying up a clutch of business-applications companies in the past few years--most notably Great Plains Software--Microsoft has struggled to integrate product lines and sales channels, calm nervous ISV partners who happen to sell the same kind of ERP software, and, most important, find a way to make the Microsoft Business Solutions (MBS) group profitable.

On Wednesday, the Redmond, Wash., software giant is showcasing some progress for MBS--at least with respect to technical integration and market messaging. As part of its Microsoft Business Summit event in Seattle, where the company is outlining its broader midmarket strategy, officials will also announce unified branding for the disparate MBS family of applications. In addition, they will provide a product road map of sorts, as the company moves toward a shared code base for its Great Plains, Axapta, Solomon, Navision and Microsoft CRM products. Finally, officials will detail a new migration program for current MBS customers to ease the move to new releases of MBS applications over the next two years.

Going forward, Microsoft Dynamics becomes the branding catch-phrase for all things MBS. The name will be phased in as new versions of the business software are released. For example, formerly named Great Plains 9.0 is due out this fall and will be branded Microsoft Dynamics GP. Other major upgrades are coming through 2007 and, as they do, they will adopt the following monikers: Microsoft Dynamics AX, Microsoft Dynamics NAV, Microsoft Dynamics SL, and Microsoft Dynamics CRM.

The unification of the MBS brand is part of Microsoft's larger strategy to pursue midmarket customers, which the company defines as businesses with between 25 to 500 PCs or 50 to 1,000 employees. The goal, according to Microsoft vice president of worldwide channel sales and marketing Allison Watson, is to tailor software to the unique and specific business needs of midsize companies and their individual departments, such as human resources, finance, sales and marketing, and IT.

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Partners, she says, play a key role in driving this effort.

"The vision is exciting for partners because of the opportunity out there," she says. "They should engage [Microsoft] by competency, get deep into verticals and learn to provide proof points about why these customers are better off with technology."

Watson added that the MBS competency--one of 13 areas of specialization that partners can join as part of the revamped Microsoft partner program--has been one of the fastest growing. She says that 70 to 80 percent of installed base partners, those previously affiliated with an independent Great Plains or Navision, have moved into the MBS competency.

Not all former Great Plains or Navision partners have weathered the transition to the voluminous Microsoft ecosystem happily, however. Great Plains' partner base, in particular, was a culture unto itself--profitable selling the popular ERP apps into the midmarket space and content with the level of personal attention sent their way by Great Plains channel executives. Some of those partners, feeling unloved and forced to compete with 10 other Microsoft partners on the block, have left the fold altogether; others have countered slowing business by picking up competing vendor products to sell alongside Microsoft.

At the business summit this week, Microsoft is hoping some definitive product development news will raise enthusiasm among both partners and customers. The company will be talking about MBS applications in the context of "roles-based" software development, which takes into account the kinds of work individuals do as well as the unique business processes underlying that work, according to Watson.

To that end, the first wave of Microsoft Dynamics' applications releases will share common client technology and integrate seamlessly with Microsoft's Office suite. The look and feel of Office is being brought to bear on the business applications so that the user gets one familiar interface from which to work, said Satya Nadella, who leads the R&D team for MBS, in an interview with VARBusiness last week.

"We didn't build our CRM like anyone else, for example," Nadella explained. "We brought the CRM sales and marketing processes into Outlook itself. You use Outlook but have access to all your CRM tools."

Down the road, the vision is to integrate the server versions of the Microsoft business applications to Office on the front end via the company's Sharepoint portal and Web services, he added. Eventually, all the business applications will adopt the same look and feel and sport such capabilities as contextual business intelligence, which, among other things, will alert users to discrepancies and exceptions in their business processes as they occur.

Finally, Microsoft seems to be trying to preempt sticker shock among customers in advance of new releases of the business applications in the next two years. To allay concerns about licensing costs, the company has devised a program called Transformational Assurance that will enable customers to move to acquire newly released functionality in next-generation software without having to relicense those capabilities they already have, according to Microsoft officials.