Plan B for Microsoft's business apps

Plan B for Microsoft's business apps

Microsoft has taken another crack at evolving its business applications, and this means that corporations could have a more flexible upgrade path as the vendor tries to integrate its wares over the next three years and keep pace with rivals.

The news for corporate users is they won't have to rip and replace their current Microsoft Business Solutions applications — Axapta, Great Plains, Navision, Solomon and Microsoft CRM. Instead, they will see a series of upgrades that will introduce common features across the platform, including interface design, development tools and integration points such as SQL Server, SharePoint Portal Server, Office and Longhorn.

Microsoft recently unveiled its new road map at its Convergence 2005 conference in San Diego.

As part of the plan, Microsoft also extended support for business applications from three years to five so users can stay on a given version longer before upgrading.

Experts say Microsoft's plan is twofold: to address user migration concerns, and to catch up to rivals in the developing web services world.

Microsoft's original upgrade plan, dubbed Project Green, would have been a replacement for current applications, but the company is replacing the glitz of that makeover with a more pragmatic plan, analysts say. The company has also abandoned its boastful prediction from just more than a year ago that it would grow its Business Solutions Group to US$10 billion in revenue by 2011.

"Project Green shook up partners and customers pretty seriously," says Chris Alliegro, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft. "If you had made investments in existing product lines, you were looking at potentially an uncertain future. You ask, 'Can I move to new products or am I looking at a costly data migration process?'"

Microsoft's plan now is to build common elements between applications such as developing 50 role-based templates for creating stock interfaces for specific users such as shipping clerks or procurement managers. The plan is also to integrate common portal technology based on SharePoint Portal Server, add support for SQL Server Reporting Services, and in 2006 ship a common user interface that incorporates similar navigation, buttons and forms.

In addition, Microsoft says it plans to create a common web services layer based on technology it is developing in Longhorn called Indigo that will let users expose the business logic from Microsoft business applications as services within a service-oriented architecture (SOA).

Those features will be part of what Microsoft is calling Wave One of Project Green.

"The thing that they can do is bring forward what they call the user experiences," says Joshua Greenbaum of Enterprise Applications Consulting. "They can use the extraordinary familiarity that the world has with Office and Outlook and drive a lot of functionality through that user experience. That is something, when you look at the synergy that the Business Solutions Group can have with the rest of Microsoft, that really is extraordinary, and that is where the potential gets mind-boggling."

Of course, Microsoft isn't the only one with that idea. Rivals, such as SAP, are looking to bring Office and Outlook to the front end of their platforms.

In Wave Two, which is scheduled to begin in 2008, Microsoft plans to add modelling tools for developers to map out a company's business processes and workflows, and adapt the business-logic web services to those models.

Some experts say the rivals are fuelling Microsoft's strategy change.

"There is a heightened sense within Microsoft that the real competition going forward is SAP and Oracle and to a lesser extent IBM," says Bruce Richardson, senior vice president of research at AMR Research. "When Microsoft hears about SAP building open business-process platforms or hears about Oracle's Project Fusion, they realise they need to get a bit more aggressive on the marketing side and talk about their plans for SOAs.

Microsoft officials say the change in Project Green merely reflects the hope of arriving at its goals without tearing up the entire road that's already been laid down.

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