What Do Users Want and Need?

What Do Users Want and Need?

Microsoft Business Solutions (MBS) especially emphasized at Convergence 2005, the company's annual user conference, that the upcoming wave of MBS business management applications will make individual users much more productive. As part of the undertaking, the vendor claims to have conducted extensive face-to-face conversations with over 2,000 business people from around the world and from all walks of life; chief executive officers (CEO), marketing vice presidents (VP), sales people, accountants, purchasing managers and clerks, warehouse workers, and so on, were all talked to, observed doing their work, and more importantly, listened to.

The booming feedback according to MBS was that almost all of these users wanted their enterprise applications to be more intuitive and organized around their specific role and tasks, that is, with pertinent personalized desktops/user interfaces (UI) that would only show them what they need to naturally do their jobs. Another often heard issue was that people want to connect and collaborate in the context of their work. Also, given a number of customers that are switching from using "pedestrian" fax and snail mail to using e-mail as the main technology for connecting and transacting with their customers and suppliers, MBS intends to build much easier transactional e-mail support into the first wave of product releases, and to make it easier to build and use collaboration portals.

Almost every current or prospective user MBS talked to also purportedly prioritized gaining insight from applications. At the basic level, users want a more intuitive way to "look inside the business", and they want applications to bring them closer to their operations, such as alerts that can help them handle exceptions or better yet, to act on business events (or even non-events) well before they become exceptions (for more related information, see the article Business Activity Monitoring—Watching The Store For You). Customers also always want very flexible and easy-to-use reporting capabilities, whereby it is always astounding to see them referring time and again to Microsoft Excel when trying to create and visualize reports, thereby virtually crowning the spreadsheet product as the leading business intelligence (BI) tool (see Vendors Harness Excel (and Office) to Win the Lower-end of Business Intelligence Market).

These first three "software of the future" design themes—empowered, connected, and insightful users—are all about making people more productive, and Microsoft believes this convergence of structured transactional data coming from MBS applications and unstructured work coming from Microsoft Office is something it can uniquely do, although the trend has also been noted and tackled by the likes of SAP, IBM, and Oracle (see Mainstream Enterprise Vendors Begin to Grasp Content Management).

Going beyond end-user productivity, there is also the realization that most business people have a mental picture of the organizational hierarchy (with associated roles) and process flows model of their company in their head, and they want their business management software to be able to easily map to this model and change with it. MBS refers to this as the "adaptive process", which it plans to enable through a model-driven development approach. Although the idea of model-driven development has been a vision in the software industry for a long time, what makes Microsoft think it can deliver it to business applications now is the existence of a set of integration standards that make it easier for the building blocks of an application to be assembled into business process flows. To that end, the Web services stack precisely addresses this need, and the use of Web services in process-based applications is referred by some pundits as one practical embodiment of SOA. For more information, see Understanding SOA, Web Services, BPM, BPEL, and More.

To put this into competitive prospective, at the recent mid-May Sage Insights Conference, Sage Software's CEO Ron Verni also spoke about what drives users to investigate technology options—a vision that is rather focused on providing the broadest range of choices and customer-specific application options that readily integrate. For Sage, underlying technologies are a means to an end, and the end is to provide businesses with highly functional, easy-to-use business process management (BPM) tools. Sage is in the business of providing business applications, not development tools, and therefore is less inclined to develop in a way that requires an ever expanding technology stack such as what Microsoft focuses on (after all, the MBS-related business is not profitable, but the software tools business is). This is where the Best/Sage broad line of application comes into play, given its attempted sweeping coverage of market needs.

As it will be detailed later on, the vendor has also announced a multi-year plan to deliver an integration framework which ties many of these products as well as third-party products together behind the scenes, and a common desktop that ties the Sage products together at the UI level, providing businesses with logical suites of business applications that they can bring together in a building block fashion as their needs dictate. Sage offers many points of entry to its product lines, including specialty applications for construction, real estate, manufacture, non-profit, and accounting, among others. In addition, the idea of supporting Linux and non-Microsoft databases is not a foreign concept to Best/Sage, making the concept of "choice in computing" even more accessible, even if Linux and non-Microsoft databases are not supported across all products.

Part Two of the Is "Sage" a Wiser and Better Brand than "Best"? series.

Microsoft's Upcoming Technology—Somewhat Explained

Coming back to Microsoft, for the first wave of Green, as mentioned earlier on, MBS is building a Web service-based interoperability layer, that is enabling applications to integrate, and is also developing composite applications to support cross-company and cross-module processes. To explain a bit deeper, Indigo, part of Microsoft's Windows upcoming operating system (OS) code-named Longhorn, unifies a variety of Microsoft technologies (e.g., Common Object Model [COM+], MSMQ, ASP.NET Web services [ASMX], and Remoting, most of which will be explained shortly) and transports (i.e., hypertext transfer protocol [HTTP], transmission control protocol [TCP], user datagram protocol [UDP]/dynamic data exchange [DDE], and inter-process communication [IPC]) to create a single framework and runtime environment for building distributed computing systems. Hence, Indigo is well suited for building software oriented architecture (SOA) systems, whereby service orientation should help software architects and developers design and build connected systems. As a well-known fact, SOA complements object orientation and helps articulate services (i.e., software components) in a platform- and implementation-independent manner.

Accordingly, Microsoft's server-side Web technology, ASP.NET, takes an object-oriented programming (OOP) approach to web page execution, whereby every element in an ASP.NET page is treated as an object and runs on the server. To refresh our memory, OOP is a type of programming in which programmers define not only the data type of a data structure, but also the types of operations (functions) that can be applied to the data structure, in which way, the data structure becomes an object that includes both data and functions. In addition, programmers can create relationships between one object and another, and, objects can, for example, inherit characteristics from other objects. One of the principal advantages of OOP techniques over traditional procedural programming techniques is that they enable programmers to create modules that do not need to be changed when a new type of object is added, since a programmer can simply create a new object that inherits many of its features from existing objects, making object-oriented programs easier to modify.

On the other hand, Web services are software programs that are communicated with via message exchange, and are also autonomous, which means they exist and run on their own. Furthermore, functionality exposed by these services are described using standards-based schema and contracts, so that many applications can invoke a service, and the service should not crash if one of the consuming applications breaks. A system would then be a collection of deployed services cooperating in a given task, and would thus be built to adapt to change.

Indigo is implemented in the Microsoft .NET Framework, which means that Web services can be created with any common language runtime (CLR)-compliant language, which can be dozens, at this stage. Indigo Web services are exposed on the wire via standards based technologies (such as extensible markup language [XML], XML schema definition [XSD], simple object access protocol [SOAP], Web services description language [WSDL], and other Web services specifications).

Earlier Microsoft .NET framework-based distributed computing technologies such as ASMX, Enterprise Services, Remoting, COM+/MSMQ can also be used from within Indigo applications, since Indigo can interoperate on the wire with virtually any applications built on infrastructure that conforms to the above Web services standards. For example, Remoting is a .NET-based technology (a replacement for Distributed Common Object Model [DCOM]) that allows objects residing in different application domains (and are said to be separated by a "remoting boundary") to communicate. Objects using remoting may be on the same computer, or on different computers connected by a network.

At the end of the day, Microsoft pledges to provide mechanisms for migrating applications that use most existing frameworks to services. To brush up on our knowledge, the .NET Framework is a programming infrastructure created by Microsoft for building, deploying, and running applications and services that use .NET technologies, such as desktop applications and Web services, which contain the following three major parts:

  1. The CLR, also known as the virtual execution system (VES), which is a runtime environment that manages the execution of a .NET program code and provides services such as memory and exception management, debugging and profiling, and security;

  2. The framework class library (FCL), which is the collective name for the thousands of classes that compose the .NET Framework. The services provided by the FCL include runtime core functionality (basic types and collections, file and network input/output [I/O], accessing system services, etc.), interaction with databases, consuming and producing XML, and support for building Web-based and desktop-based client applications, and SOAP-based XML Web services; and

  3. The above-depicted active server pages.NET (ASP.NET).

Microsoft asserts that Indigo will also be instrumental in facilitating true peer-to-peer (P2P) communications, where personal computer (PC)/desktop users can "exchange data, share resources, locate other users, communicate, and collaborate directly in real-time" without the need for Web servers. P2P is a type of network in which each workstation has equivalent capabilities and responsibilities, which differs from client/server architectures, in which some computers are dedicated to serving the others. These networks are generally simpler, but they usually do not offer the same performance under heavy loads. For more information and a comparison with like capabilities of the counterpart Java-based development Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE) environments, see Understand J2EE and .NET Environments Before You Choose.

Ease of Use and Affordability

Coming back to model-driven applications development, to drive further ease of use and affordability, MBS intends to scale the scope of its models to include declarative descriptions of business processes that are nowadays encapsulated in code. In doing so, it will be capturing the "best of process" knowledge from across all MBS product lines and building them into a software model that will, in fact, eventually converge the business logic code across the product lines as well.

In the first Green wave, it will start by abstracting out workflows, while in the subsequent second wave it will move to even finer-grain levels of the model wherein it will start to tackle the more tricky issues of complex flows, exception paths, and differences in planning versus execution time. A good starting point for much of this repository thinking has been the MBS Axapta's Application Object Tree (AOT) advanced model-driven application development environment that tremendously helps with recording and preserving customizations during migrations to future product releases.

To do more of this process modeling, MBS is working closely with the colleagues in the Microsoft Platforms and Visual Studio teams (which now includes the Microsoft Business Framework [MBF] team too) to drive these modeling tools, repositories, and runtime support for process execution. One of the key goals here is to deliver visual designers for process modeling for business analysts and not just programmers, much like it will be done in the Microsoft CRM suite's upcoming Workflow Management module.

The second Green wave, which is slated for shipping in 2008, will build on the first wave and will extend the model-driven approach to finer-grain business processes and help lower costs even further. Innovations released during the second wave will draw on the power of the upcoming WinFX programming model and Visual Studio.NET. By delivering on this vision of innovation, the MBS group hopes to enable customers to take advantage of the increased innovation in its products without experiencing significant disruption or costs.

All of the aforementioned Green themes—empowered, connected , and insightful users, and adaptive processes—will mean little to existing and prospective customers unless they contribute to change the fundamental cost structure of enterprise applications (i.e., to enable affordable adaptability). Therefore, an additional universal theme would be to lower total cost of ownership (TCO) by reducing the cost of evaluating, installing, configuring, and upgrading MBS applications. Last but not least, what MBS refers to Fundamentals would be its continued strive to front-load software development process (i.e., design phase) with customer centricity (not only in terms of qualitative customer feedback loops, but also by increasing levels of instrumentation in code), quality, reliability, and security.

As a recap, Project Green is not a product per se, but rather an ongoing process that produces incremental enhancements in existing products and that delivers on the vision of affordable adaptability across at least two waves of upgrades for all major product lines. At some point, the four ERP product lines might converge into one core system (in a possible third wave that would move toward increasing amounts of shared design and shared code while giving users the chance to move toward that common point), but it looks like quite a long time from today.

Although some may want to exult over even the mighty software empire's need to scale back its ambitions for Project Green to pragmatics, many will feel a sigh of relief now that the road ahead will be more evolutionary than revolutionary. On one hand, enterprise users prefer the comfort zone of stability, continuity, and incremental improvements in their business systems, rather than radical wholesale disruptions.

On the other hand, the ambiguity of the initial Green effort's goals and timetable have left MBS VAR and independent software vendor (ISV) partners in the unsustainable position of trying to sell today's products (on maturing technologies) against the prospect of a much more improved, possibly unified future product. The revised incremental product delivery in waves conveys the message that all the products will progress to these next-generation capabilities, and that there is no reason for customers to protractedly postpone their buying decisions.

Focus on Evolution and Incremental Upgrades

The most important research and development (R&D) revision might be that, instead of a complete rewrite, MBS is going to focus on the Web service layer enabling the four products so that their respective "best of breed" functions can be used—to some extent interchangeably—as the platform for a composite application solution that would be independent of any individual ERP product. This makes much more sense and will be not only easier to do, but easier for customers to leverage. Existing users will be glad that they will be able to stay on their current systems and take advantage of new technology as incremental upgrades, whereas new prospects will be able to purchase MBS applications today, knowing that they are not investing in products that will soon be at their end of life (EOL) point.

With the idea of no user left behind, one of the more popular uses for SAP's NetWeaver platform is to knit together SAP modules that cross several product releases, which is something that Oracle too is claiming to be planning in its forthcoming releases of Oracle, PeopleSoft, JD Edwards, and (at about the same time as the Green second wave) its upcoming "Project Fusion" release, see While Oracle and PeopleSoft Are To Fuse, Competitors Ruse—Leaving Customers (Somewhat) Bemused .

Further, with its product portfolio, MBS is addressing clients from as little as one million to as big as billion dollars (USD) in revenues, the question is how effectively that unified product and single approach of the previous Project Green can cater to varied needs of such a wide spectrum of users. The smaller enterprises need a very flexible and open package that can bend and adapt as their business changes or as they grow, whereby their users tend to fulfill more than one job or role at a time (if they are even clearly defined). Conversely, larger enterprises require more emphasis on security (restricting information access) and tend to have clearer role demarcations and, therefore, a larger need for a structure that defines business processes.

Thus, more important than whether the product is converged or not, the next-generation product has to feature a Web service platform and include a comprehensive set of business process components that can be configured and orchestrated through the use of some business process modeling tool.

Moreover, thereby partly dispelling rumors of potential product relegations to a "maintenance mode", Doug Burgum, senior vice president of the MBS Business Group at Microsoft also outlined the delivery roadmap for virtually all MBS enterprise applications:

  • MBS Axapta—The Microsoft Axapta 3.0 Service Pack 4 will be released in the second quarter of 2005, whereas the availability of a beta version of Microsoft Axapta 4.0 is expected in the fourth quarter of 2005 with a release to manufacturing expected in the first half of 2006.

  • MBS Great Plains—Microsoft launched Microsoft Great Plains 8.0 Extensions in the first quarter of 2005, whereas in the fourth quarter of 2005, Microsoft Great Plains 9.0 and Microsoft Business Solutions Business Portal 3.0 will be made available.

  • MBS Navision—Microsoft will launch Microsoft Navision 4.01 in the third quarter of 2005.

    MBS Solomon—Microsoft Solomon 6.5 is expected in the fourth quarter of 2005.

  • MBS CRM—The next version of Microsoft CRM 3.0, rather than previously intended Microsoft CRM 2.0, with an entirely new marketing automation module and a slew of other minor enhancements, will be released to manufacturing in the fourth quarter of 2005.

  • MBS for Analytics (FRx and Forecaster)Microsoft Forecaster 7.0 will be released in the third quarter of 2005, while integration of Microsoft FRx 6.7 with Microsoft Navision 3.0 and Microsoft Navision 4.0 will be introduced in the first quarter of 2006. In the first half of 2006, Microsoft FRx 7.0 will be introduced, with Microsoft Forecaster 8.0 scheduled for launch in the second half of 2006.

  • MBS Retail Management System (RMS)—Microsoft launched a next-generation point-of-sale (POS) solution in the second quarter of 2005.

On its hand, in addition to launching the abovementioned new naming convention for the company, during its conference Sage also launched twenty-five new products, upgrades, and services that will be available between now and September 30. The products, announced in front of some 2,300 partners attending the company's Insights 2005 partner conference, included a range of new SaaS offerings, which is a delivery model that is apparently becoming increasingly popular in the small and medium enterprise (SME) market that is at the core of the Sage product offerings (see Trends in Delivery and Pricing Models for Enterprise Applications: Pricing Options).

As to possibly point out only some more remarkable new offerings out of the entire barrage of a near term roadmap for the extensive lineup of products, one could start from ACT! Premium for the Web, which is a hosted implementation of Sage's popular contact management application, whereby the familiar ACT! experience delivered via the convenience of the Web will now reportedly provide real-time, access to centralized and secure data anywhere with no synchronization required. Further, there is a re-branded Sage CRM offering based on the acquired ACCPAC CRM product, which is a suite of configurable customer relationship management (CRM) software for SMEs that is available both as a hosted service at SageCRM.com and for on-premises deployment.

Sage CRM, which is fully Web-based, also comes with an interesting rent-to-own investment protection guarantee that provides businesses with a critical safety net for their hosted CRM investment, whereby Sage provides SMEs with options to advance to more feature rich CRM systems as their needs evolve. Namely, the hosted option provides fast, on-line access to a configurable CRM suite for SMEs with immediate needs. If necessary in the future, Sage intends to help protect a customer's hosted CRM investment through the new rent-to-own program that returns up to 50 percent of a customer's hosted subscription fees if they move to an on-premises CRM suite product from Sage in the first twelve months of service. Sage CRM is available at $595 (USD) per user for on-premises licensing and $69 (USD) per user per month for hosted CRM at SageCRM.com.

Moreover, Sage CRM offers businesses significantly more freedom of choice than other solutions by eliminating technology lock-in'. Namely, in addition to allowing customers to deploy the same solution either on premises or as a hosted service, including the ability to move between either as their business needs dictate, Sage CRM clients also have more supporting technology options, including Microsoft Outlook and Lotus Notes integration, plus the IBM DB2, Microsoft SQL, Oracle, and Sybase database options. Like its on-line counterpart, Sage CRM is also identical to the company's existing ACCPAC CRM product, whereby additionally, an ACCPAC edition provides bidirectional front-office/back-office integration with the ACCPAC Advantage Series accounting and operations management software. In essence, ACCPAC CRM will thus be sold to customers looking for a specific set of accounting features, while customers looking for integration of those features with other Sage products will be sold the same product under the Sage CRM moniker.

Last but not least, the vendor is expanding its Sage Payroll Services offerings into mid-market companies and organizations. Offered within the framework of Sage Online Services, the new outsourced payroll services for the mid-market will be added to the company's existing Peachtree Payroll Service for small businesses, which currently has more than 5,000 customers. Sage Software's other online service offerings for SMEs include Sage Compliance Services, formerly known as FLS tax compliance services, in addition to the above SageCRM.com for hosted CRM.

Also built on a true Web-native architecture, the new Sage Payroll Services include Sage Payroll Services Abra Edition, which integrates with Sage Abra HRMS (human resources management system) solution, Sage Payroll Services MAS Edition, which integrates with the company's Sage MAS 90 and Sage MAS 200 accounting products, and a stand-alone Sage Payroll Services offering, which can reportedly be used in conjunction with any in-house accounting system. Peachtree Payroll Service is also built on the same Web-native architecture, but especially meets the needs of small businesses by integrating with the company's Peachtree by Sage accounting products.

Many of other new products and upgrades that are due shortly continue the themes of integration, technology choice, and advanced connectivity of both business processes and users, with products as diverse as Web platform versions of ACT! contact manager and SalesLogix CRM, to on-line banking for Peachtree 2006 accounting products, and the direct integration of many Sage Software products.

This concludes Part Two of the "Sage" a Wiser and Better Brand than "Best"? series.

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