Solomon Stands the Test of Time Despite Changing Masters Part Three: Product Differentiators

Product Differentiators

Microsoft Business Solutions Solomon, formerly Solomon IV and Microsoft Great Plains Solomon IV, is a prominent business management and e-business suite of applications for small and mid-market companies. Most recently, in summer 2003, Microsoft Business Solutions (MBS) announced the availability of Microsoft Business Solutions Solomon 5.5, which includes several new features and enhancements in the product's Foundation Series, Financial Series, Project Series and Service Series of modules.

If not for a broad footprint, Solomon has been hailed for its flexibility and customizability, since its code was designed in a way that every new product release ensures that all customizations/modifications attributes (regardless whether new features have been introduced by MBS' developers or the users) are carried over.

Features can also be customized on either a temporary or permanent basis. As some examples, the product allows report customization, input screens and forms, and is customizable on different levels, while users can even start from a blank screen. To that end, the Customization Manager module allows the quick and easy modification of Solomon to fit a specific need, without changing the underlying source code. Solomon was one of the first mid-market accounting products that provided the ability to customize beyond basis screen "look and feel" features using Visual Basic programming, which is provided in the Basic Script Language (BSL) component of the Customization Manager module.

Further, the Solomon Object Model allows any application or programming tool that is capable of communicating to the Microsoft Component Object Model (COM) the ability to integrate with any screen in Solomon. Moreover, not only does it facilitate the integration with external applications, the model also provides the necessary architecture for Microsoft VBA, which is used within the above-mentioned Customization Manager. In other words, the object model provides a programmatic interface to the underlying functionality of Solomon, which enables any COM compliant tools (e.g., VBA within Microsoft Office applications, or any Microsoft VB and Visual C++ based tools) to communicate to objects (an item that can be programmed and controlled, such a text box or a drop-down menu on a particular screen) in any Solomon screen. This allows reuse of discrete pieces of the Solomon business functionality without rewriting desired functionality from scratch. At the same time, the object model is not data-centric and does not provide direct access to Solomon data structures, which leverages existing knowledge and involves non-programmers in the design decisions, inherits data validation and data entry constraints, and inherits database update rules.

This is Part Three of a four-part note.

Part One detailed the recent product enhancements.

Part Two discussed the market impact.

Part Four will present the challenges and make user recommendations.

Integrated Modules

Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, MBS Solomon offers several series or groups of integrated modules that address different business types and needs. This modularity has the advantage of allowing the prospects to start frugally with only necessary base modules (e.g., accounting) and to incrementally add more functionality as needs demand and budgets permit, without the complexities of switching accounting application vendors or converting databases.

Of all the MBS' products, Solomon is apparently the purest in terms of a standard Microsoft technology stack, and without any proprietary additions (such as Great Plains original Dexterity environment, Navision's proprietary integrated development environment C/SIDE, which includes a proprietary Navision Server database and a proprietary 4GL programming language; Navision strong analytical features using Sum Indexed Flow Technology (SIFT); and the proprietary MorphX graphical development suite for Axapta). It is also a single-code product, with the same look and feel for both small and midsize customers, which has long differentiated the product from its competitors and MBS siblings (e.g., MBS Great Plains vs. Dynamics, Epicor Vista vs. Vantage, Best Software Peachtree vs. MAS 200, etc.) that currently offer separate products for the lower and upper ends of the mid-market. MBS Solomon Standard, a lower-priced offering of the Solomon edition that addresses the needs of lower mid-market enterprises with smaller information technology (IT) budgets and less-complex business structures (e.g., fewer companies or fewer divisions) that have twenty-five to ninety-nine employees, annual revenues of $25 million (U.S.) or less, and up to ten licensed users.

Furthermore, its sharp focus solely on Microsoft technology from the ground up, coined in "the power of one" motto (one OS platform—Windows XP/NT/2000, one database platform—MS SQL Server, one development environment—MS Visual Basic, etc.), also presents an attractive, risk-adverse option for penny-pinching mid-market customers. Solomon IV has consequently been very competitive in speed of implementation (from only two weeks to four months duration), feasibility of customization, total cost of ownership (TCO), and price/performance ratio. The product architecture has been devised entirely from scratch within the Microsoft context, which provides for flexibility and ongoing agility.

While its former and current competitors, particularly Sage (Best Software's UK-based parent company) and Great Plains, may have a more extensive partner channel within the industry, Solomon's indirect channel is more nimble and focused. This is due to its single-code product portfolio that reduces the deployment and support requirements for its entire market segment. In addition the former Solomon had supplemented its over 500 VARs through its above-mentioned STC network, which would provide for global service consistency and additional leverage for the channel.

Financial Series

At the heart of MBS Solomon is the Financial Series, which is made up of typical accounting and financial applications such as General Ledger (GL), Accounts Payable (AP), Accounts Receivable (AR), Cash Manager, Currency Manager, Multi-Company, Financial Statement Translation (FST), FRx Reporting and Payroll/Direct Deposit. GL account and sub-account numbers can be up to thirty characters in length, whereby the main account number can be up to ten characters, and the remaining twenty characters can include up to eight user-defined segments. GL transactions can be entered using several types of transaction batches, including non-recurring, recurring, manual and one-sided adjustment, and GL account determines whether the transaction will operate in multi- or single-company mode. Transactions can be entered for any prior fiscal period or year as well as for future periods, which allows for things such as installments and prepayments to be managed at a single time, rather than month after month. The Financial Statement Translation module is compliant with Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) Statement 52, Foreign Currency Translation, and International Accounting Standard Board (IASB) Statement 125. The module supports translations from one set of books to another set of books, and supports multi-tier translations and consolidations.

A built-in version of the FRx Desktop and FRx Forecaster marquee financial planning, budgeting and reporting software integrates with Solomon for financial statement presentation, as it locates data from different accounting systems if necessary and puts all the information in a single report. Additionally, across all other Solomon series of modules, there is OEM embedded industry-accepted and familiar Crystal report writer, which can publish reports directly to the Web (using an embedded Crystal Reports Smart Viewer) or into Excel. This eliminates any need to learn proprietary and often pesky report writers, which has traditionally been the case with most peer products. Daniel, do not break the page here, keep the next two sub-head groups on this page

Inter/Multi-Company Accounting

A particular differentiation would be Solomon's inter/multi-company accounting capabilities, which are pervasive throughout the entire product's functional footprint (even in the AR module, which is not easily encountered within other accounting products including MBS Great Plains), and the Inter-Company Export/Import tool takes information from multiple databases and uses them in transactions, while users can define access rights to the particular company data. Multiple companies in separate databases will have the same account structure but different charts of accounts. Although the invoices for different companies are entered in the same batch, checks are printed by company and sales tax history, for example, is listed by the company as well. Solomon is one of a few rare accounting products in its class where one supplier's master data can be shared amongst multiple companies, and the product also features a multi-company cash disbursements capability.

E-Business Modules

Solomon was also one of the first products amongst its peers to feature a number of e-business modules that provide a browser-based portal and electronic data interchange (EDI) features that let employees, customers, and business partners interact and retrieve important information from the company's accounting system through an Internet connection, without a need for Microsoft Terminal Server (MTS) or any other like web-enabling hardware component. The well-publicized Solomon Desktop module was the first one launched back in 2000 to allow secure, browser-based, anytime-anywhere access to all Solomon modules. The e-Commerce Gateway is another module that lets a company transmit and receive paperless electronic documents from business affiliates and partners. The module maps raw EDI data into meaningful Solomon business transactions and verifies the data to be added to its databases. The eVoucher application is used for the entry of AP vouchers and vendor account maintenance, which comes particularly in handy for remote locations.

Project Management

The Project Series, which has been Solomon's landmark functional part, focuses on project-based activities with tools for project structure definition and budgets, time and expense (T&E) entry, allocations, flexible billing formats, change order control, contract administration, local and Web-based project analysis, employee utilization/realization, and proactive alerts and work flow. The respective modules are Project Controller, Analyzer, Project Budgeting, Time & Expense for Projects, Flexible Billings, Contract Management, Employee Utilization, Project Allocator, and Communicator.

The Project Controller module enables costs per project to be collected and charged from one system, while account categories are user-defined. The module maintains original budget and estimate at completion (EAC), and calculates burden, overhead, general and administrative (G&A) costs, fee and billing rates. The Analyzer module is a set of tools for project managers, which pulls together information such as labor, travel, and materials for detailed analysis, and it maintains two revised budgets (EAC and forecast at competition (FAC)). Like in all other modules, data is viewable on-line and can be drilled-down from the report summary level to the individual transactions that make up the summary figures, as well as create graphs and export data to Microsoft Excel.

The T&E module features costing methods and labor classifications that are designed to accommodate government, project, and billing requirements. The Flexible Billings module creates and generates invoices in different formats, whereby more than one project can be recorded in one invoice. Billings can be scheduled as per contracts and there is the provision for deferred revenue recognition. The Communicator Module is another nifty feature providing user-defined alerts to warn when an action is required, and even to escalate alerts via e-mail if the proper party does not respond. The module also can maintain all the parameters of a project and keep them in check, while a number of documents, such as timesheets, invoices, or budgets can be reviewed and approved or rejected on-line.

MBS Solomon's bright future should particularly be vouched by the MBS PSA product, which was devised to increase the effectiveness of mid-market professional service companies that manage people and resources in order to provide services or intangible commodities to their clients. These enterprises focus on project management and tracking, inventory and procurement for office consumables and supplies, human resources (HR) management, project automation and performance management, and to that end, they seek administrative systems that will automate billing functions, track costs, ascertain profitability, measure levels of service provided and so on. To that end, the Microsoft PSA product seems to cover many bases, from engagement, via resource management to business intelligence and performance management. Target industries would include law firms, PR firms, system integrators and consultants, financial services, insurance, public sector, healthcare, and hospitality, to name some.

Field Service Series

Last but not least, Field Service Series support automation of service call processing and dispatching, management of service contracts from quotation to renewals, equipment management, and invoicing capabilities. The Service Dispatch module has a graphical dispatch board that allows for drag-and-drop service call rescheduling. The module can also process invoices using flat rate or time and materials. With the Equipment Maintenance module, users can define equipment types, services provided, and work performance codes. The module also includes preventive maintenance tracking. The Advanced Distribution series addresses basic SCM with modules that include Advanced Shipment Management, Bill of Materials, Inventory, Order Management, Purchasing, Web Order, and Work Order, while Solomon 5.0 added Inventory Replenishment, Landed Cost and Order to Purchase. Both the Service and Advanced Distribution Series come with strong order management and tracking (e.g., various order types and associated order steps) facility, again with user-defined work flow management.

This concludes Part Three of a four-part note.

Part One detailed the recent product enhancements.

Part Two discussed the market impact.

Part Four will present the challenges and make user recommendations.

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