Microsoft app users like portal plans but want more

At Microsoft Corp.’s Convergence 2003 conference held recently in Florida, a half-dozen users expressed interest in a portal-style user interface that the software vendor is developing for its business applications. But some attendees said they’re still looking for more functionality from Microsoft.

For example, Bill Siemering, CIO at HealthForce Partners Inc. in Seattle, said the health care provider began beta-testing the Microsoft Business Portal earlier this month. HealthForce, which runs Microsoft’s Great Plains financial and accounting applications, plans to use the portal as a central spot for delivering company news and letting end users access data related to their jobs or to specific business projects, Siemering said.

One big plus of the portal software is that it’s tightly integrated with the Great Plains products, Siemering said. But he added that he also wants to see Microsoft provide out-of-the-box connections between the portal and other applications, such as the customer relationship management (CRM) software it shipped in January.

Developing Ties

As expected, Microsoft used the conference to announce the portal and to preview another upcoming software offering that’s designed to boost the ability of its applications users to collaborate with their customers and suppliers.

Mark Jensen, a group product manager at Microsoft’s business solutions unit, said IT managers will be able to collapse multiple application screens into a single Web browser interface and then custom-configure the portal for different workers. End users will get direct access to applications through a single sign-on tool, Jensen said.

The first portal release, due next month, will include full integration with Microsoft’s Great Plains and Solomon applications. Ties between Great Plains and the new CRM software are being beta-tested and should be available right off the bat, Jensen said. Integration of Microsoft CRM and Solomon should follow later this year, he added.

Gibson Musical Instruments, a maker of guitars and other stringed instruments in Nashville, is a Great Plains user and has been beta-testing Microsoft Business Portal with about a dozen users for five weeks.

Gibson is considering using the software as a general corporate portal, said Matt Mullins, the company’s chief knowledge officer. But Mullins said he would also like to see Microsoft offer vertical applications tailored to his industry, plus an integrated point-of-sale system within the Great Plains suite.

As part of the Microsoft Business Network collaboration initiative, Microsoft plans to release software in June that will let companies use XML to exchange documents in electronic data interchange formats. The company said it will add Web services broker technology to the collaboration offering, but it didn’t disclose a specific schedule.