Microsoft’s Underlying Platform Parts for Enterprise Applications: Somewhat Explained - Part 4

Part 3 of this blog series analyzed the ever-evolving user interface (UI) and visualization technologies, and related approaches of Microsoft and other independent software vendors (ISVs). Lawson Smart Office and IFS’ Project Aurora (including the first Project's delivery, IFS Enterprise Explorer [IEE]) were described.

Shedding Some "Northern Star" Light on IEE

For IEE IFS uses Microsoft ClickOnce, which is a technology designed to perform web-based deployment of rich applications. Basically the authorized user clicks on a link and the application loads straight from the web server without needing to be installed and distributed via CDs (like traditional client/server applications). It works similar to the counterpart Java Web Start or Adobe Flash technologies.

ClickOnce can be used for all Microsoft .NET UI application styles including Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF), Windows Forms, and Silverlight. Basically, it is the deployment technology for Windows applications. IFS decided not to use WPF as the technology for building UI initially but plans to do so for its next major update due in a couple of years, when it also expects the availability of Microsoft .NET Framework 4.0, which the vendor believes will serve its needs well. It is also currently possible to mix WPF and Windows Forms in the same application, since the interoperability apparently works very well.

In any case, the current set of tools used by IFS has helped the ergonomic design and easy navigational technologies, such as: adaptable links panel, contextual breadcrumb navigation, and rich media. Adaptable links panel is a panel at the screen that shows all places “where a user can go from here.” For example, when viewing a customer order the Link panel will show links to customer information, price agreement, service level agreement (SLA) contract, and other “related” information (see figure below).


More on Slick Navigation

Contextual breadcrumb is a context-sensitive navigation menu that helps users visually navigate (and return to the start page, in association with the classic fable about Hansel and Gretel) to other application areas/pages that are “near” his/her current “path” in the application. You have a similar thing in Windows Vista for folder navigation. Similar to this is the Visual Recent Screens capability, which is a visual navigation history, showing all pages in the application visited since a user logged on (see figure below). It is also similar to the feature in Internet Explorer (IE) that shows all open tabs.


A good example of breadcrumb navigation could be found in the use of Webcom's WebSource CPQ product catalog and configurator. The product is written in Java and AJAX UI technologies, just note that this navigation mode is technology-agnostic.

A Webcom’s user can be a seller of categories like: Software, Hardware, and Services. If a potential buyer clicks on Hardware, then the system will open up the subcategories like Servers and Printers. By further clicking on Servers, then the options can be Web Servers, Storage Servers, File Servers, and so on.

While the user is navigating, the system creates at the top of the screen “breadcrumbs”, so that the user knows how he/she has come to this place and how to go back. The breadcrumbs path might look like:
“Home > Top Level Catalog > Hardware > Servers > …> Current location”

Making it Stick

As for rich media features, they would comprise everything that is not a static HyperText Markup Language (HTML)  page, such as RealVideo, Adobe Flash, Microsoft Mediaplayer, Microsoft Silverlight, and so on. Previously, these gadgets could only show videos and play music and animation, but now users can write applications over them.

In IFS’ case, the most visible way to use rich media is to use the Sticky Notes feature. Basically the user can put a sticky ("Post it") note (only logically, not really physically, duh!) onto any record in the system (e.g., customers, projects, orders, invoices etc.). The note “sticks” to the record and will be visible to all other authorized users who look at that same record. Inside the note users can put any content they can put in a regular “rich text” field in Windows.

This content includes, for example, pictures, hyperlinks, video clips, Objects Linking & Embedding (OLE) objects (or any embeddable document type), etc. The sticky note is to enable data to be kept that is not part of the normal system database (as a sticky note would be on a physical desktop),but that can be searched along with the data in the database. This serves the purpose of capturing knowledge in the organization and not just with an individual (see figure below). Could this capability also be a first date between user communities and enterprise applications?


Silver Lining in Silverlight?

But unless Microsoft Silverlight is used, Windows users are tied to the desktop, which means less reach and portability than in browser-based applications. Silverlight (formerly called WPF Everywhere [WPF/E]) provides a runtime browser-based deployment environment for WPF applications written in Extensible Application Markup Language (XAML).  Silverlight is a subset of WPF and is designed to run cross-platform to enable Rich Internet Applications (RIA); WPF has some additional capabilities but assumes it is running on a “Windows box.”

Silverlight and WPF have had their share of many broad platform announcements at the recent Microsoft PDC (Professional Development Conference) 2008 conference. Relative to business applications-oriented UI design controls, there has been a panoply of new capabilities within the Silverlight toolkit, such as Charting, TreeView, DockPanel, WrapPanel, ViewBox, Expander, AutoComplete, NumericUpDown, and so on.

These controls should all also be available for WPF, which on its part has received the controls like DataGrid, DatePicker, Ribbon, Calendar and VisualState Manager. These controls are already also included in the Silverlight 2.0 announcement, albeit the Ribbon control from WPF is not in Silverlight yet.

These capabilities are in great part what the Dynamics team has been waiting for before jumping in broadly on the Silverlight/WPF bandwagon. In addition, Microsoft Developer Division is open-sourcing the Silverlight controls, so we can expect to see lots of advanced controls added by ISV’s down the track. Thus, Microsoft admits that visualization is a key area of investment for Microsoft Dynamics products, and as Silverlight capabilities around data expand, Dynamics products will add Silverlight experiences to their common controls.

This is not to neglect the work Microsoft has done around introducing role-tailored user experience (UX) across the Dynamics products, embedding role-specific and contextual analytics directly in the application UX, and introducing both breadcrumb bar navigation and action panes (the Office ribbon-style interface). Independent of what "plumbing" the company uses, these have been pretty dramatic UX changes, and similar to the abovementioned navigation gadgets in some of the other vendors’ products.

Bottom Line: Win-Win for Microsoft

Coming back to the second issue from the beginning of this blog series, i.e., Microsoft Business Division’s (MBD) Profit & Loss (P&L) statement, at the Convergence 2008 user conference, the giant stated the following stats for Microsoft Dynamics:

  • A 26 percent revenue growth in Q2 2008;

  • Nearly 300,000 customers worldwide;

  • Nearly 10,000 business partners worldwide;

  • About 1,700 Dynamics solutions in Solution Finder; and

  • Over 14,000 customers and over 625,000 users of Microsoft Dynamics CRM.

Now, some nitpickers might say that Microsoft Dynamics is not a profit generator for Microsoft, if not even bleeding money due to all the ongoing product investment. Well, guess what, Microsoft is certainly not in dire need of cash to squeeze it out of Dynamics’ operations.

As some of you might know, now that Dynamics is part of MBD, which contains Microsoft Office, Dynamics, Exchange, Office Live and Unified Communications, the parent company doesn’t report the Dynamics business separately any longer in terms of revenue and operating income. However, Microsoft still discloses Dynamics customer billings figures every quarter, and here are the three data points it has publicly disclosed:

  1. In fiscal 2006, the last time Dynamics was an external P&L entity, it achieved profitability in Q4, and was profitable for the full year;

  2. In fiscal 2007, Dynamics crossed an important internal milestone of becoming an over US$ 1 billion business; and

  3. For fiscal 2007 and 2008, Dynamics has reported a 21 percent growth in billings in each of those years.

But the thing that represents Dynamics’ “extra” contribution is the sale of all those Microsoft platform components to all of the customers of Dynamics. That is to say that Dynamics creates a “pull” for other Microsoft technologies.

Money for the Caviar

Plus, let’s not forget about all the revenue and profits coming from related sales of SQL Server, SharePoint, Office, Exchange, and so on to an army of ISV’s (many of which are even fierce Dynamics competitors).

Microsoft has also touted and recruited many ISVs for  Office Business Applications (OBAs) as a way in which line-of-business (LoB) systems can be seamlessly integrated with the ubiquitous Microsoft Office productivity tools. Business applications are made possible by key platform capabilities, called OBA Services, in the Microsoft Office 2007 system that cater to the following features: workflow; search; the Business Data Catalog (BDC); a new, extensible UI; Microsoft Office Open XML Formats; and the Web Site and Security Framework.

Another example (staying on the IFS theme) is IFS Business Analytics, the first product from the vendor’s Intelligent Desktop initiative. This product is a business intelligence (BI) solution that extends Microsoft Excel from a desktop productivity tool to a full-fledged, enterprise-scale client for planning, reporting and analysis. In other words, users hereby benefit from using IFS Applications (and its embedded security and authorizations) within an already familiar Excel environment.

Users can generate interactive reports that enable them to immediately update their analyses and conduct detailed analysis from the Excel spreadsheet all the way back to individual transactions in IFS Applications. And the sophisticated write-back logic can be used to update planning data, once again taking full advantage of Excel and the data management and security in IFS Applications.

Therefore, dear readers, what are your experiences with some of the technologies described in this series? What are your views, comments, opinions, etc. about Microsoft and other mentioned ISVs’ moves?
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