Gates talks up midmarket business apps

Citing a “huge commitment to business applications,” Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates sketched out a mid-market strategy that emphasizes role-based user interfaces and tight integration with Microsoft Office.

Gates and other Microsoft officials detailed the company’s plan at the Microsoft Business Summit.

Focusing on mid-market shops — those with 50 to 1,000 employees — the officials touched on aspects of Microsoft’s business applications plan that feature revamped ERP and CRM packages under the new nameplate, Dynamics.

They also noted the planned Centro platform, which is intended to offer ease of system management in mid-market shops and is based on the planned Longhorn version of Windows Server. Centro will feature unified setup and management screens.

Users have had to cope with a fragmented set of applications, Gates said, often competing with non-digital approaches.

“We believe that by taking business processes and making them very visual, very explicit, we can do something quite different than ever has been done before,” he added.

Following research that involved participation of more than 750 midsize companies, Microsoft is upgrading its business applications with the role-based interfaces, which are tailored to specific roles in a company. Links between the paradigms of business applications and personal productivity are also key.

Users thus far have had to move data back and forth between these systems, Gates said.

“People were clear to us that they want software for their companies built around their roles,” he said.

Microsoft’s role-based interfaces debut with the Microsoft Dynamics packages. These will arrive beginning this fall with the introduction of Microsoft Dynamics CRM 3.0 and Microsoft Dynamics GP, the former Great Plains ERP package. Dynamics will support some 50 roles.

“Dynamics speaks to some very specific architectural capabilities that we are uniquely designing into our software,” Gates said. Dynamics will have a richer connection to Office than in the past, he added.

Microsoft’s CRM Outlook client, for example, can allow for checking of business activity through the Web Part Page technology in Outlook. A sales professional can even launch a business campaign through this combination. Microsoft is also planning an RSS link for the CRM package. The CRM-Outlook integrations are planned for Microsoft Dynamics CRM 3.0 in October.

“You can see a lot of power here through the use of Office in a role-based approach,” said Alex Simon, director of CRM program management at Microsoft.

Microsoft’s planned integration of productivity applications and business systems impressed attendee Richard Karr, business development director at Affiliated, which provides consulting, business process engineering, and application development.

“[Users are] straddling two different worlds and screens” with these systems, Karr said. “They’re not as connected as they should be and Microsoft’s trying to bring them together.”

The planned Office 12 package, due in 2006, is key to Microsoft’s strategy. It features SharePoint Web sites and replacement of file servers with a richer environment.

“This is the version of Office where you will say, ‘Business intelligence is built in,'” Gates said. Also featured is the ability to use Excel as a server product and the ability to expose specific information to partners.

“We’re building up the richness, the idea of application context, the idea of workflow-sharing by using the deep investment that this next generation of Office makes available,” Gates said.

The Dynamics road map covers two phases, including some technologies already available. Wave 1, which spans the 2005-07 timeframe, includes role-based user experiences, SharePoint-based portal and workflow capabilities, SQL-based contextual business intelligence, and Web services-based composition and integration

Wave 2, which begins in 2008 and extends out from that year, is to feature modular process configuration, enhanced Visual Studio .Net tools, an enhanced user experience and a “best of” process library.

Gates noted trends impacting software: the increasing performance of Wintel hardware, wireless and portable systems, service-oriented architecture, the digital work-style and lifestyle, digitization of the economy, and software breakthroughs.

The connecting of software using Web services-based interfaces is noteworthy, Gates said. “The basic advance here was the adoption of XML as a data format that can describe data in a very rich way,” providing previously unseen extensibility, he said.

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