Microsoft Preps 'Elixir' For Outlook, Back-End Apps

Company officials confirmed published reports about "Project Elixir" and said the first deliverables will surface this year.

"We will get the generalized toolkit out to partners so they can implement Elixir solutions for customers," said Charles Fitzgerald, general manager of platform strategy for Microsoft.

Fitzgerald said the work grew out of an internal effort to bring together data from various systems and deliver it to employees. The Microsoft system builds atop existing Outlook capabilities using Visual Studio, the .Net framework and Web services, Fitzgerald said. It in effect slaps an Outlook face on Siebel CRM and other systems.

"Most customers we talk to have dozens if not hundreds of different systems with customer information. Then you have the challenges of how to get that information to people when they need it so they can deliver better service and support to customers," he said.

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The beauty of the Outlook interface is it is so recognizable that retraining costs are minimized, Fitzgerald said.

Solution providers and consultants said Microsoft is smart to try to tie Outlook into data and processes that are the lifeblood of businesses. "They're really trying to make the Outlook client a front-end for processes, and if you think about it, it makes sense. You end up with a sort of workflow engine," said Fred Reede, president of Reede Creative, a Cleveland-based CRM consultancy.

"Any sort of business has to move information around--either documents or invoices or shipping notices. If you moved that set of processes to the front end, that's a good thing," said Reede. "If I have Outlook, I have tasks, calendars that can be shared. With some more horsepower and integration, if you have Outlook and I have Outlook we can make appointments even if we don't have Exchange [at the back end]."

Project Elixir in some ways parallels Microsoft's Information Bridge Framework. IBF seeks to make Office applications de facto front ends to back-office processes and data. CRN broke the news of IBF a year ago. Microsoft has promised an IBF update for this spring.

Dan Leach, Microsoft Office group product manager, characterized IBF and Project Elixer as complementary but not directly related projects.

"Both provide powerful ways to build Outlook smart client application, and both can be easily integrated with a company's Web services backend," he said.

IBF is good for creating "contextual integration with specific documents while Elixir is one example of how a company can build a whole solution using Outlook as an interface for a relatively standalone set of semi-structured data, such as you'll find in a database," Leach said.

It makes sense for Microsoft to parlay Outlook's familiar user interface into new areas, observers said. Third-party applications vendors, especially CRM players like Best Software's SalesLogix and, already tout their own Outlook integration as a big advantage. Some solution providers say these vendors have done a better job at that integration than Microsoft itself has done with its Microsoft Business Solutions applications.

Both IBF and Elixir are part of Microsoft's attempt to drive broader adoption of the latest Office 2003 release. Many customers have yet to move off of old Office XP or Office 2000 installations, solution providers said.

By making the new Office, or its constituent pieces, more integral to business processes, Microsoft hopes to show more value in the upgrade, they said. The company is also working on more server-side components that will carry the Office System label, sources said. The new Office servers will include an InfoPath Server.