Microsoft CRM partner builds 'first-ever Windows 8 tablet app for the enterprise'

Sonoma Partners, a Microsoft CRM consultancy, shares its experiences developing a custom, line-of-business Windows 8 app.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

Sonoma Partners is laying claim to the title of developer of the "first-ever Windows 8 tablet app for the enterprise" with a line-of-business app the consultancy developed for New Belgium Brewing.

The app, the "Ultimate Beer Ranger," is being built for the sales team at New Belgium. (New Belgium, as other beer aficionados no doubt know, is the Colorado brewer behind Fat Tire, Hoptober and a number of other tasty brews.) Sonoma and New Belgium will be showing off the app at Microsoft's Convergence conference for its Dynamics partners and customers which is taking place in Houston next week.

The majority of preview apps for Windows 8 from Microsoft and its partners have been games and consumer-focused wares. There have been few examples of line-of-business apps for Windows 8, and relatively little information so far about how these kinds of customized apps can best be built. These kinds of apps will be side-loadable and made available through the Windows 8 app store.

Sonoma -- which has lots of previous experience with Microsoft's Dynamics CRM product -- has been working on the Ultimate Beer Ranger app since the Windows 8 Developer Preview of Windows 8 hit last September. Microsoft's Windows team has worked with the consultancy to help them take advantage of Windows 8's new programming interfaces, the "contracts" for app sharing and the WinRT/Metro-Style framework.

"New Belgium's IT staff is very forward thinking and wanted us to tailor a specific use case for a tablet," said Jim Steger, a principal with  Sonoma Partners. (While a few iPads had begun trickling into New Belgium, the sales reps currently tend to use smartphones more than tablets for their on-the-road information needs, he said.)

In six weeks, Sonoma had a working prototype app, built using HTML and CSS, that would allow sales reps to access data on the retail partners and establishments selling New Belgium beer. Sonoma considered going XAML because a number of their developers were familiar with Silverlight, Steger said, but ultimately decided on HTML because of easier integration with mapping elements, and because Microsoft was interested in more HTML-based proof points for Windows 8.

Via the "search" charm in Windows 8, the app allows users to search account information stored in a back-end Dynamics CRM system. The app also allows reps to see accounts within predetermined areas using the geo-location capabilities; to import photos (of beer lines, end caps, etc.) straight from the tablet; and to obtain real-time access to key metrics, like volume and sales figures. There's also a live tile interface that allows reps to see their next appointments.

Sonoma currently has fielded the app to a few New Belgium reps for testing. They're using it on Samsung Windows tablets -- which ultimately may or may not be the final device of choice. Steger said he's still interested in seeing the app work on Windows 8 on ARM tablets, but hasn't seen any prototype devices beyond what Microsoft and partners kept locked away at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year. He expressed concern when I told him that at least so far, it appears that WOA tablets won't be able to join Active Directory domains.

New Belgium's users are still "getting used to" swiping menus and charms, Steger said. Sonoma also has encountered the challenges of targeting an operating system that's still a moving target, plus a dearth of documentation for developing apps for Windows 8, he said. Learning to optimize apps for touch, which requires more attention to graphics and layout, also is new territory for the company, Steger said.

"This is a new way of looking at CRM," Steger said.

Anyone else out there done any early work on building business-focused Windows 8 apps? Any guidance and experiences to share at this point?

Editorial standards