Microsoft’s Project Green unifies business apps

Microsoft has begun whipping up enthusiasm among its partners for next month’s release of the newest version of Great Plains, the first step of integrating its collection of four business management applications under one roof.

”We’d like to see our partners add capacity (sales and implementation staff),” Lynne Stockstad, general manager for what is now called Dynamics GP, said Wednesday at a partner event in Toronto.

Partners from across the country were there to be briefed on GP 9.0, which will be available Dec. 19. It promises to take greater advantage of Web services, deeper integration with Microsoft Office, an Outlook-type interface, enhanced business intelligence tools, a role-based desktop and a portal giving suppliers the ability to access GP. There will also be consulting toolkits and Vertical PowerPacks to help partners with implementations. Microsoft’s effort to bring products like GP, Navision and other products together is code-named Project Green

Pricing of 9.0 is the same as the previous version (US$42,000 for GP Standard), but the Developer’s Toolkit has been slashed by almost a third to $4,500 to encourage partners and ISVs to build on the platform.

However, 160 Web services components needed to take full advantage of GP 9’s capabilities (called Extensions) won’t ship until the middle of January.

GP partners interviewed by said they are looking forward to the release. “It’ll be fine for (selling to) new clients,” said Brian Smallwood, product manager of Accsoft Business Solutions of Toronto, after Stockstad’s presentation. “It’s got a lot of enhancements, there’s the dashboard look – it’s a typical Microsoft product and has the integration to Microsoft Office. Integration is a huge thing for us. We use that a lot when we try to sell the product.”“It’s going to be a nice version,” George Braun, president of TGO Consulting, a Markham, Ont. solution provider, said in a pre-launch interview. His company counts on the application for about 90 per cent of the company’s $8 million in annual revenues.

Brent Twist, CEO of Encore Business Solutions of Winnipeg, believes 80 per cent of Great Plains users will want to upgrade in the next six months.

Great Plains is grouped under the Microsoft Business Solutions division, along with ERP siblings Axapta, Navision and Solomon. Although targeted at different markets, there is some overlap, which causes confusion among customers as well as partners. Sometimes a Great Plains VAR, for example, will find itself bidding for a deal with a Navision partner.

Because all four applications were acquired by Microsoft they also come with different code bases and toolkits. So several years ago the company promised to eventually merge them into one. Customers weren’t enthused at the original plan, which suggested there might be a need for complex porting.

Earlier this year Microsoft released a new roadmap, vowing to use Web services and a service oriented architecture to bring the applications together. Eventually the product will have one name: Microsoft Dynamics, although there will be versions tailored for small, medium and large businesses as well as verticals. But for now the four applications have been renamed Dynamics GP, Dynamics AX (Axapta), Dynamics NAV (Navision) and Dynamics SL (Solomon).

GP 9.0 is “a stake in the ground to delivery of the roadmap that we promised,” said Stockstad.

However, marketing for the product will kick off in March, timed to take advantage of a customer conference and the launch of Dynamics CRM 3.0.

Dynamics AX and NAV will have new releases in the second quarter of next year, while SL 7.0 will come out later. There will be an attempt to give all a similar interface.However, there will be another round of releases in 2007. The new unified code base not expected to emerge until at least 2008.

According to Gartner analyst Billy Maynard, Microsoft will achieve the converged platform by adopting integrating Web services into the four applications in two waves.

For GP 9.0, this first wave of services will help users perform a range of functions such as create accounts or process general ledger transactions. Developers or ISVs who want to build specialized functions will be able to do so through Visual Studio 2005.

Maynard and other analysts believe GP 9.0 will be welcomed by buyers and partners. “The integration to Office and the (new) user interface . . . is going to be well-received,” Maynard said. Another improvement which will score well are templates for creating 21 role-based interfaces so certain users can have quick access to particular information.

The improvements are “going to be enough to make most of the GP customers make a serious evaluation of whether they should upgrade.”

As for partners and ISVs, “the fact that they’re exposing Web services and making them available through Visual Studio 2005 will make it easier for them to develop their own extensions or industry solutions that compliment Great Plains.”

“It will be a winner for them,” said Forrester Research analyst Paul Hamerman.

Longer-term, however, Microsoft faces big challenges. Creating the new architecture will take three or four years, Hamerman noted.

“It becomes an engineering challenge,” said Chris Alliegro, an analyst with Directions On Microsoft. “How do you take four products and converge them to a single code base, one back-end set of data structures and a consolidated set of programming interfaces in such a way customers and third party applications can migrate.

“It’s hard to imagine that Microsoft can do this in such a way that there aren’t fairly complex data migrations.

“It’s probably almost impossible.”

Microsoft isn’t alone in that boat: Oracle is trying to do the same as it merges it’s newly-purchases PeopleSoft and J.D. Edwards applications with its E-Business Suite.

But it has to be done as competition for mid-market ERP applications intensifies. In addition to Oracle, SAP has created a version of its R3 enterprise ERP application called All-In-One, while for mid-size and small companies it offers a Windows-only suite called Business One.

But Stockstad told partners not to worry about SAP, saying All-In-One isn’t suited for the mid-market, while GP 9.0 has greater flexibility and more features than Business One.

As for Microsoft’s partnership with SAP to deliver Office integration with its products, she noted deliverables are a year away, but GP 9.0 is ready now.

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Howard Solomon
Howard Solomon
Currently a freelance writer. Former editor of and Computing Canada. An IT journalist since 1997, Howard has written for several of ITWC's sister publications, including Before arriving at ITWC he served as a staff reporter at the Calgary Herald and the Brampton (Ont.) Daily Times.

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