Giving ERP users the Windows feeling

Microsoft owns the desktop, with at least 400 million Office users around the world. This has led to it becoming the de facto standard as the preferred user interface for enterprise software.

Microsoft owns the desktop, with at least 400 million Office users around the world. This has led to it becoming the de facto standard as the preferred user interface for enterprise software.

How many times have you presented an end-user with new software only to hear them say, "Why can't I have software that works the way I do?" - ie, with an Office-like interface.

This is not a new idea - I first wrote about it in 2002 after a meeting with Intraspect Software, now part of Vignette. Intraspect had developed a set of applications built on top of Office. In the three and a half years since, it is surprising that only Microsoft and SAP have followed that concept in enterprise applications.

Version 3.0 of Microsoft Dynamics CRM tightly marries Office and customer relationship management functionality. In fact, it is virtually impossible to separate one from the other.

Walk around your offices and look at the PCs of your salespeople. I am willing to bet that if they have an application open, it is Office - not the third-party CRM software you put in. There is an even better chance that your sales management is manipulating all of that pipeline data in an Excel spreadsheet. Like it or not, Office is the way we work. 

Microsoft's CRM customer base now exceeds 5,500 companies and more than 150,000 users. And that does not include Microsoft's own employees. Microsoft is a big Siebel customer, with rumours of 30,000 seats. Now that Siebel is being acquired by rival Oracle, Microsoft staff are clamouring to use their own software.  

Microsoft is carrying the Office look and feel to enterprise resource planning too. Microsoft Dynamics GP 9.0 is a dramatic improvement in ease of use for the whole ERP market. Microsoft also plans to spread this look to its other ERP products.

Project Mendocino - SAP teaming with Microsoft to allow users to access SAP functionality within Office - was the big news at the April Sapphire 05 user event in Copenhagen. The Office user interface was an immediate hit at the conference.

In April, one SAP executive estimated that his company had 12 million R/3 or MySAP users. He also estimated that there were 60 million Office users in companies that had SAP software installed. It is not too much of a stretch to imagine SAP adding a lot more seats via Project Mendocino. And it could do so with relatively low sales costs.

Given users' response to Mendocino, it is surprising that SAP has been so quiet about its progress since the launch. The initial plan was to begin shipping an early version this quarter, with general availability planned for next quarter. The current buzz is that broader availability may be 12 months away. This would have it coming out at about the same time as Microsoft Office 12.

The early previews of Office 12 have led to rave reviews by even the most grizzled analysts.

Here is my scenario: in the next 12 to 24 months, we are going to see competition and co-operation between the two software giants. It is easy to envision the two battling over CRM, portals, business intelligence and web services. These are core foundation opportunities.

But the real battle may be over the composite applications that can be layered on top of Office and/or MySAP. For example, think of the new business processes to support global account management, trade promotion management, sales and operations planning, campaign management, and supplier-managed inventory.

Users may use Microsoft tools and web services to create, manage, and send structured and unstructured information that may reside in SAP's new "business process platform" (the convergence of applications and Netweaver) and other applications and databases. 

Bruce Richardson is chief research officer at AMR Research

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