Navision 4.0 to boost business analytics

Microsoft has provided more detail on the next release of its Navision ERP application, which will have an Outlook-style user interface and more sophisticated business analytics

Microsoft has outlined some of new features in the next version of its Navision 4.0 business management application, which is due "sometime towards the end of the year" according to Microsoft Business Solutions  Navision product manager Veda Snyman.

Navision 4 will feature an Outlook-style interface, business analytics running on Microsoft SQL server, support for inter-company postings, business alerts via email, and bundled support for Microsoft Smart Tags.

"We're changing the Navision user experience so that it will have more of an Office look and feel, with panes down the left-hand side, much like Outlook," said Snyman.

One Navision reseller welcomed the interface change, saying it made sense given the popularity of Outlook. "It seems sensible enough, but we'll have to wait to see how it's actually implemented," said Steven Weaver, consultancy services director at Xonitek in the UK.

The current 3.7 version of Navision doesn't support much in the way of complex business analytics, but 4.0 will allow users to interact with their business information in much more sophisticated ways. "Business analytics is one of the highlights of the release. It's a whole new class of tool. It's taking data out of the Navision database and putting it into the SQL server database, and it allows you to really slice and dice it," Snyman said.

Weaver agreed that business analytics will be a key addition. "It certainly is important at the higher end of the market where people have the skills to extract the information. For the smaller SME market, those skills are home-grown or lacking, but the smaller companies will still be able to use Excel to do basic reporting," he said.

Support for inter-company postings will make it easier for companies to use Navision to interoperate with business partners. "It's going for businesses who have different companies that do inter-company trading. Larger companies need to report and transact without manually raising sales and purchases orders. That's really at the higher end of the market," said Weaver.

Business alerts via email, which give users a heads up that an event has occurred in Navision, are popular with users but are not possible in Navision 3.7, where this functionality is provided by third-party applications such as PFD Mailer.

Microsoft's SmartTags technology, which is currently available for Navision on a separate CD, will also be built into the release. "If I type in a customer name and I have SmartTags enabled, the system will recognise that it's a customer, and I can drill back into the Navision database, and find that customer's card. It provides seamless integration with Microsoft Office," said Snyman.

Snyman was keen to emphasise that customers who are paying for Microsoft's maintenance programme will be able to upgrade to the next release for free, and customers who choose not to upgrade can still expect full support. "We will continue to provide and enhance our existing product until 2013," she said.

One area which Microsoft has yet to discuss is Navision's integration with its own, home-grown CRM application, an issue which Xonitek's Weaver is keen to see resolved.

"The integration there will be interesting, as all businesses are keen on using CRM. From what I understand Microsoft CRM is quite a hefty beast and may rule it out of the small end of the market which may not have the knowledge and technical requirements to use it," said Weaver.

Microsoft now has a complicated set of overlapping sets of business applications that includes its own CRM application as well as the Great Plains, Navision and Solomon product lines. Navision has about 35,000 users worldwide, with about 1,700 customers in the UK.

Microsoft's master plan to integrate its different business applications is called Project Green. This will meld its patchwork quilt of applications into a single interconnected set, with Microsoft rebuilding the software on its own technology.

Project Green is tied in to the release of the next Windows upgrade, code-named Longhorn, set to ship in 2006. Microsoft will carry on updating and maintaining the current versions of its four sets of applications until 2012.

Customers who continue to purchase maintenance services for those products will receive the new Project Green applications for no additional licence fee, according to Microsoft US officials.

CNET's Alorie Gilbert and Ina Fried contributed to this report.