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Microsoft’s Underlying Platform Parts for Enterprise Applications: Somewhat Explained - Part 3

Written By: Predrag Jakovljevic
Published On: November 14 2008

Part 2 of this blog series analyzed Microsoft platform parts that are slated for shared use within the Microsoft Dynamics family of products. Particular attention was given to Microsoft SQL Server, SharePoint, and parts of Microsoft .NET Framework.

What About Visualization and User Interface (UI) Technologies?

However, what has somewhat intrigued me is Microsoft’s not-so-vocal touting and promoting of Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF), although it is an intrinsic part of the .NET Framework. In fact, to the best of my knowledge, the tool has not yet been used within the Dynamics set in earnest, although Lawson Software  and Verticent would be the two independent software vendors (ISV) that I am aware of deploying it.

Both vendors tout WPF’s rich UIs that support virtually infinite customizations and business process compositions using Microsoft applications. Other Microsoft-centric ISVs either support only a limited number of specific and prescriptive business scenarios, or use a combination of technology products (for example, Microsoft Office Business Applications (OBAs), Visual Studio.NET, and proprietary interfaces and UI tools) to come up with similar custom scenarios. Again, Microsoft currently uses WPF very selectively in Dynamics UIs, for example, in the Dynamics AX graphical view of the organization structure of the business.

With its Smart Office offering, Lawson is not the first to leverage Microsoft Office to deliver not only manager and employee self-service, but much more as well. In fact, I could think of the joint SAP and Microsoft Duet product, Epicor Productivity Pyramid, QAD .NET UI, SYSPRO Office Integration [SOI]),  IFS Business Analytics, and so on.

However, by leveraging WPF, Lawson embeds manager and employee self-service functionality more directly into Microsoft Outlook than Duet (which is more of an add-on launched from Outlook as an integrated pane) and most other vendors' OBA solutions.  Fore more details on Lawson Smart Office, see my earlier blog post on the vendor’s CUE 2008 conference and the Gartner Dataquest Insight report by Bob Anderson entitled “Lawson Raises the Bar With Differentiating ERP User Interface."

Curiously, Lawson has deployed another non-mainstream Microsoft technology, Microsoft Office Groove. It is a peer-to-peer (P2P) collaboration platform, providing an outstanding base for collaboration (document exchange) scenarios that involve teams with sometimes disconnected participants. Microsoft claims that future product releases will improve the alignment for collaboration between Groove and SharePoint.

Lawson's technology decision was likely owing to Groove’s concept of “shared workspaces” and Lawson’s view that individuals live in a "space" where they do most of their work.  For example, a manager really "lives in" Microsoft Outlook, and should be able to do all his/her work from there.  An accountant lives in Microsoft Excel and should be able to work from there. A mobile technician lives in the cell phone/personal data assistant (PDA) metaphor, where the Apple iPhone or Palm Treo similarity of UI can come in handy.

Some Other Vendors’ UI Approaches

Still, although WPF provides a visually appealing, familiar and intuitive UI, it comes with some trade-offs, specifically in memory utilization (being hardware intensive), the need to be hooked to the network, and a much greater dependency on Microsoft software. For instance, IFS doesn’t use WPF today for IFS Applications' UI simply because of hardware needs: running WPF requires quite a hefty PC in terms of memory, and preferably the (possibly still unstable) Windows Vista platform.

We are talking here about IFS’ upcoming next-generation UI, which had for some time been called Aurora, but is now called IFS Enterprise Explorer (IEE). Namely, to prevent any confusion about Aurora being a separate product from IFS Applications, IFS has recently clarified its naming conventions.

Aurora is now a development project that will yield several enhancements to IFS Applications, all with a focus on ease-of-use and user productivity.  The first deliverable as part of the Aurora project is IEE, the new graphical user interface (GUI) for IFS Applications. It is important to note that after IEE is released, the Aurora project will continue, yielding future enhancements.

In any case, IEE is interesting, to say the least, for leveraging Microsoft UI technology to create a look (albeit not yet the multi-touch touch screen, handgestures, etc. feel) of Apple iPhone (on top of Oracle database and Java-based application servers on the back end: some mix of technologies from adversaries, indeed). It is becoming quite obvious that the iPod  and iPhone generation is our future workforce, who require well designed tools that they “love” to interact with. At the same time, they accept no excuses for “Why can’t I…?” questions, such as, for instance, “Why can’t I search in the enterprise application in the same way that I search on Google?”

At the end of the day, the design goal is to achieve more with fewer staff members, who thus have broader responsibilities, are able to handle the unexpected, collaborate with colleagues, and be more productive. In other words, the market drivers are the new and engaging design and user productivity. Consumer information technology (IT) and the web are leading the way, and are also becoming quite important for business applications.

To that end, prior to the IEE undertaking, IFS developed a pervasive enterprise search engine that attempts to think the way people think (e.g., “I need that fault report about the fire alarm not working”), and not the way enterprise systems think (i.e., “I want go into the preventive maintenance module where, in the service request folder, I will start the fault report screen, in which I shall then make a query on the description field containing any words followed by the words ‘fire alarm’ followed by any other words again”).

With built-in security (users can be limited in search authorizations as required), the enterprise search capability vouches for better results and value without additional costs. For more information, see the TEC’s article entitled “Why Enterprise Application Search Is Crucial to Your ERP System."

The final Part 4 of this blog series will complete the analysis of the ever-evolving UI and visualization technologies, and related approaches of Microsoft and IFS. Your views, comments, and opinions about, and/or experiences with any above-mentioned solution are welcome in the meantime.
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