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Microsoft stakes application future on integration

Microsoft says its ability to integrate its ERP and CRM applications with its other software products will be crucial to its performance in the applications market. Predictably, Salesforce.com isn't convinced

As Microsoft prepares to launch highly-anticipated new versions of many of its applications, the company is banking on the pervasiveness of its software and its ability to integrate the products together.

The launches of its next ERP system, Great Plains 9.0, and Microsoft CRM 3.0 are now "just days away". In preparation, the company has stepped up its public relations activity with an interactive exhibition in London and is offering discounts and special deals on products such as CRM 3.0, prior to launch.

According to Paul White, director of the Microsoft Business Solutions Group in the UK, the emphasis will not so much on products as on showing how Microsoft and other products can work together.

"Five years ago, when people talked about complete integration, it just meant you could highlight some fields in an ERP application and drop them into Excel," White told ZDNet UK.

"What we are talking about now are forms, that might be developed in Word, being driven by the workflow system and appearing within the ERP application and SharePoint, [which is] the means by which parts of the application may be deployed to individuals who may be working from home."

White believes the latest products will "put us some way ahead of the field".

The lead will come "through better integration, through the ERP and CRM applications and everything else that Microsoft does", said White. "It's not because our ERP application is 5 percent better than Oracle Financials, it's because people want to use our ERP system as it is easier and more familiar."

In the CRM space, Microsoft will be taking on the likes of Siebel and Salesforce.com and, according to James Utzschneider, general manager of product marketing for Microsoft Business Solutions, it has key advantages over both. 

With Microsoft CRM "the entire application works on-line and off-line [so] you can sit on the Tube and go through the entire functionality of the application," he said. "With Salesforce.com you are chained to the Internet."

Utzschneider also stressed "the complete integration" of CRM 3.0 with  Microsoft Outlook. "That means that sales people walk up to it and say, 'I know how to use these because I know how to use Outlook'. So having all of my mail managed by the CRM system without having to go into a separate environment -- we just think it makes them more productive."

But Chris Boorman, Salesforce.com's vice-president for Europe, questioned the advantage of being able to use your laptop to access CRM. "Wants to use their laptop while being bounced around on the Tube?," he asks. "You want to be able to use your Blackberry, not your PC, and we have that," Boorman said.

Microsoft's Utzschneider claims a third key advantage in the applications market -- Microsoft's vast army of developers. "We offer an unsurpassed level of customisation that you can do within the applications," he said. "There are 250 independent software vendors whose products run on top of the system right now."

Next week, Microsoft is hosting Life2, a invite-only showcase for Microsoft products that White said will be "not a show of products but will show how the technology works". There will be a heavy focus on the small and, especially, medium-sized business in the UK. The show takes place at Chelsea Harbour.