Microsoft bundles CRM applications with bCentral

Microsoft is releasing a .Net-enabled version of its bCentral Web services portal to provide small and medium-sized businesses...

Microsoft is releasing a .Net-enabled version of its bCentral Web services portal to provide small and medium-sized businesses with an alternative to traditional customer relationship management (CRM) packages.

"Are we interested in CRM? Yes," said Nigel Burton, Microsoft's general manager of marketing for bCentral. "We've made a concerted decision that we're not going for the large enterprise."

The software giant is tying CRM applications from Great Plains Software together with bCentral. Microsoft acquired Great Plains in 2000.

BCentral will serve as the hosted version for small companies, while Great Plains will be sold as software for middle-market companies to inside a firewall.

Microsoft will consider offering hosted versions of the Great Plains applications alongside the bCentral functions, Burton said.

The .Net-enabled bCentral version takes advantage of Passport as an authentication method and allows developers to tap into .Net technologies such as C# to make developers more productive, said Marcus Schmidt, Microsoft's lead product manager for bCentral.

Passport will provide a single doorway into both bCentral and Great Plains services. "That is one of the ways we're achieving integration between the two," Schmidt said.

Other than Passport, the benefits of equipping bCentral with .Net will be fully realised several years from now, he added. "I don't know if customers would see any immediate deliverables, but there will be faster releases of software and services."

However, the integrated offering will start to show up in the near future, according to Burton. Integrated desktop value in categories of enterprise resource planning, CRM and business intelligence (BI) will begin to become available in 2002, he said.

The overall goal is to provide back-end applications, connect them to Office applications and interconnect them all through bCentral, from which Microsoft will provide BI functionality so users can analyse the data.

In its pursuit of the CRM space, Microsoft plans to do more of what Great Plains has done, Burton said. For example, the software giant will use the Great Plains channel-oriented approach as a sales avenue.

"We have to cede the market. We'll have to keep prices pretty low for a while," Burton said.

Erin Kinikin, vice-president of analyst firm Giga Information Group, said medium-sized customers are looking for a single integrated solution that includes both CRM and ERP, adding that they do not want separate software for these.

"CRM is just beginning to be a focus area for mid-size customers," Kinikin said. "Every mid-market company sells to customers and has to manage customers, so CRM will be as important as ERP to them."

Consultancy Aberdeen Group said Microsoft's combination of Passport, .Net and Web services would alter the way customers view CRM from large applications into more flexible options that can be adopted as companies need them.

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