Microsoft's annual business software confab, Convergence 2006, centered on the combination of Microsoft business products into one Microsoft enterprise resource planning system, and also on converging communication devices for both work and home."The opportunity to do better software has never been stronger," said Microsoft chairman and chief software architect Bill Gates, in a keynote address to roughly 7,000 attendees. "We talk about this digital decade and people living a digital work style or a digital lifestyle when they go home -and that is becoming more and more commonly accepted. As you move things away from paperwork and onto the digital approach, everything is software value-added."

Microsoft Dynamics is now the name for the one MS ERP system that will be formed after combining the four current MS ERP applications - Microsoft GP (formerly Great Plains), AX (Axapta), SL (Solomon) and NAV (Navision) - and Microsoft's customer relationship management system, MS CRM. When it was first introduced in September, Microsoft Dynamics was originally branded "Project Green."

"The purpose of moving toward one name, one solution, is centered around a single branding effort by Microsoft," said Doug Burgum, chairman of Microsoft Business Solutions. "Most people today do not even realize that Microsoft has a business division."

One dynamic product

At last year's Convergence, Burgum announced the move toward one Microsoft ERP, which will happen after two "waves" of software upgrades are completed for all five Dynamics products. The first wave would bring the five products onto one platform, SQL; tighten integration with other Microsoft products through the use of Web Services SharePoint-based portals; and a more role-based user environment.

But some MS partners, like Steve Wierenga, vice president of information technology at Ajacs Die Sales Corp., a family-owned die components distributor in Grand Rapids, Mich., who has been using Microsoft SL for 13 years, showed concern about Microsoft's move toward the single system. "We're watching how the products play out with all these waves, but will the end result cost us extra?" wondered Wierenga.

During a session on the Microsoft Dynamics Roadmap, Tami Reller, corporate vice president of Microsoft Business Solutions' marketing group, stated there would be no added cost for the implementation of Dynamics for Microsoft partners or their customers who have already purchased one of the MS ERPs. The final Dynamics product would be considered an upgrade, not a new product, and cost accordingly.

Jeff Raikes, president of Microsoft's Business Division, the parent to MBS, Dynamics and Office, announced that the company was now midway through delivering on Wave One, even if the deadline was extended from the end of 2006 to the end of 2007.

Last November, Microsoft shipped out SL 6.5, and by the second quarter of 2007, its SL 7.0 will be shipping. Meanwhile, GP 9.0 and CRM 3.0 were made available in December of last year, but they also have new versions coming out before Wave Two debuts with GP 10.0 by the end of next year. The next version of CRM is due out in the first quarter of 2007. Meanwhile, AX 4.0 will be launched in June 2006 and NAV 5.0 in the first quarter of 2007.

Microsoft realizes that many small and midsized businesses probably can't afford to purchase all the new releases in the pipeline and, therefore, has promised customer support until 2013 for all versions of any Dynamics product.

Converging work and home

Microsoft's Business Division, which includes Office, represents a third of Microsoft's total revenue stream, or about $15 billion a year, said Raikes. Much of that revenue is going towards research for the unification of more than just the business software like Dynamics products, but hardware and devices as well, said Gates.

One trend that Gates pointed out in his keynote speech is the doubling of transistors. This doubling will lead to software running in a parallel environment and increase the performance capabilities of microchips today, a technique that Intel and Microsoft are pouring billions of dollars into, he said.

Miniaturizing computers themselves and combining them with phones is one way that Microsoft is looking to free up the business user from behind his desk.

"The phone is probably the place of the most rapid change. There, Microsoft and others are providing rich software that takes the phone way beyond just a voice device," said Gates, "making it a great data device - a device where your calendar, your alerts from your business software, all reside there but with the user interface that's familiar. So as you move from that device to a larger screen device, it's not an abrupt change."

Ultra-Mobile PC

Some three weeks before the conference, Microsoft announced its newest mobile product, the Ultra-Mobile PC. A cross between a low-grade PC and personal digital assistant, it has a seven-inch screen with minimum 800x480 resolution and a touch panel, and is priced at around $1,000.

"So we're actually taking the PC down, so that there will be no gaps between a high-end phone and a low-end PC. If you combine those small form factors and their readability with a wireless network, now you're talking about expanding the ability to work out into new locations," said Gates. "That can mean a claims adjuster for insurance, it can mean a salesperson, it can mean a doctor wandering around a hospital; quite amazing how when you unleash people who have to move around as part of doing their job, and yet give them that data empowerment to see and to input, that that can make a very big difference."

Gates demonstrated the device, along with a new interactive table, wired as a sort of scanner/Internet device. After Gates laid the Ultra atop the interactive table, he scanned his fingerprint into a biometric fingerprint scanner on the side of the table. Once approved, the table read the Ultra and enlarged a press release sent to Gates, which he approved by scanning his fingerprint again. The table translated his fingerprint scan into an electronic signature onto the press release and then sent it back to the sender. Gates also scanned a business card by placing the card on top of the table and then used a drag-and-drop technique to enter the information into his Ultra.

Gates also showed attendees a new billboard-style computer screen for personal workstations that acted as a wall divider as well as a monitor. The large screens also substituted for not dual but triple monitors, and allowed for easy drag-and-drop features with touch rather than mouse use between the separate screens.

While advancement in hardware took leaps on stage at Convergence, many business software providers believe the first wave of the future offstage is happening with online software. Gates does not feel the same as many of these providers, however.

"We don't think there will be a huge swing towards one model at the expense of the other model," said Gates. "In fact, a lot of people are going to find that the kind of flexibility they have with new management tools will make the on-premise stuff very, very attractive. Now, as you get smaller in size, maybe the off-premise becomes relatively more attractive, and we just want to give people that choice."

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