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Microsoft CRM 4.0 Ushers in a New Era

Dynamics CRM 4.0 could score big for Microsoft in the midmarket space.

Microsoft is busy lining up developers to build apps for Dynamics CRM 4.0, the company's latest attempt to take on Oracle Corp. and SAP AG in the enterprise applications segment.

The new customer relationship management (CRM) software adds multi-tenancy (the ability to host multiple accounts on a single server) and other key features to extend the appeal of the Dynamics CRM line.

Dynamics CRM 4.0 targets a broad range of customers with multiple versions. Dynamics CRM Live is a hosted offering that provides on-demand services tailored to smaller firms and the departments of large corporations, says Brad Wilson, general manager of Microsoft's Dynamics CRM and Business Solutions business. Dynamics CRM Live, which is hosted directly by Microsoft, is available now to select customers via an early access program.

There are two other versions of Dynamics CRM, both expected by year's end, which are designed to be hosted on-premise or by a Microsoft Host Partner. All three versions of CRM 4.0 are built from the ground up on a services-oriented architecture -- code-named "Titan" -- with Web services APIs, and tap the Windows Workflow Foundation (WF) that's part of the .NET Framework 3.0.

Flexibility is a key underpinning of the new version. With CRM Live, users can switch as needed between the on-premise hosted version and online versions (either from Microsoft Host Partners or Microsoft itself). The aim, Wilson says, is to "mix up clients, servers and services to deliver an integrated product to people. We're very focused on offering CRM as software on premise, services run as a cloud -- and you can have on-premise CRM software invoking third-party services in on-demand fashion."

Winning Customers
The approach could win Microsoft a lot of customers in the fast-growing midmarket segment of the CRM arena, says William Band, an analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc.

"[Smaller companies] are very interested in CRM solutions that are easy to use and that will help them better manage their customer interactions, just like larger organizations," Band says, adding that Forrester's research indicates "high interest in CRM solutions from Microsoft, particularly due to its strong integration with Outlook."

In fact, Microsoft CRM extends its integration to the entire Office 2007 suite. Information processing and publishing firm Sandhills Publishing Co., based in Lincoln, Neb., is tapping that integration to offer Dynamics CRM 3.0 as a hosted service to customers so they can eliminate clumsy paper-and-pen business processes. The deployment serves more than 1,800 users from 900 companies.

"We're showing customers how they can use Office applications to export to CRM 3.0, and have worked with some to use Excel for the bulk import feature," says Greg Loseke, manager of dealer services for Sandhills' CRM initiative. "They save time, reduce mistakes and increase productivity."

Using Outlook or Internet Explorer, Sandhills' customers can access all the key CRM functions enabled by Microsoft Dynamics CRM -- including customer -- and lead-tracking and inventory control.

Sandhills plans to upgrade to CRM 4.0 soon, says Kim Mehring, manager of hosted solutions. "To us, what's of value in CRM 4.0 are its multi-language, multi-currency and multi-tenant capabilities, because we're an international company."

For the Developer
Microsoft has worked to align both Dynamics CRM Live and CRM 4.0 with the latest available tooling and platforms. All the advances available in Visual Studio 2008 can be leveraged when customizing and developing for Microsoft Dynamics CRM, according to the company. Microsoft is also working on a compatibility pack for Dynamics CRM that will ensure that the software works with .NET 3.5. The pack should be available around the time of the CRM 4.0 release, according to a company spokesperson.

The emerging Silverlight cross-browser, cross-platform implementation of the .NET Framework also adds appeal to developers working with Dynamics CRM 4.0. Silverlight 1.1, currently in alpha, enables development of rich Internet applications and streamlines delivery of video, animation and 2-D graphics over the Web. Silverlight can integrate with Dynamics CRM environments using the IFrame customization capability on forms.

For example, Silverlight can be used with IFrame to visualize data like purchasing trends, displaying data in a bar chart alongside other elements on the screen. Or developers can integrate video or images, under a tabbed page, which offer valuable insight about a prospect's requirements.

In enterprise environments, Microsoft offers CRM connectors into leading ERP applications, including those from PeopleSoft, Oracle and SAP. It also provides pre-built connections for ERP applications within the Microsoft Dynamics family.

There's a standard connector to Microsoft BizTalk Server that defines data mappings and process flows into and out of the Dynamics CRM system. This connector, together with app adapters delivered as part of the BizTalk Server platform, enables connectivity to third-party apps. It also forms the basis of BizTalk Server-based adapters between Microsoft CRM and custom or legacy apps.
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