For many of the 5,000 or so attendees at Convergence 2005, it was not so much new technology or keynote speeches by titans such as Bill Gates, but the catch-phrase "evolution versus revolution" that circulated throughout the three-day user confab.
The oft-heard tagline encapsulated Microsoft Business Solutions' plan for the next three years, ending in the ongoing unification goal of "Project Green," the company's effort to bring various products under one code base.
Rather than jump users from one version of a Microsoft Business Solutions' application to a bigger, faster system (revolution), the goal is to create smaller, better versions of the application (evolution) over a two "wave" process.
"Change occurs faster, and change is not something that can be ignored," said Doug Burgum, senior vice president of Microsoft Business Solutions, during his keynote address. "We want to be able to create processes which cut across the way people work to allow people to work together in an easier way and to have those processes adapt as the organization goes."
Emerging from the waves
With the first wave of MBS changes - between now and the end of 2006 - comes a more role-based user experience based on determinations from interviews and surveys. Pending changes include better and more SharePoint portal integration, as well as additional SQL-based context and more Web services.
"A lot of changes are around usability - changes to the system without huge costs," said Jeff Young, general manager for Microsoft's Great Plains. "Affordable adaptability."
The second wave, beginning in 2008, will bring a more modular process configuration; enhanced Visual Studios .Net tools; an enhanced user experience; and a best-of-process library. All three products have their own road map to follow, but they generally fit into the wave process Burgum unveiled at the start of the convention.
When the two waves end, what MBS executives hope to see parked on the beach is one integrated solution - Project Green.
The project tries to make all three enterprise resource planning applications - Great Plains, Axapta and Navision - into one. The idea behind the evolution process in waves is that the change will be gradual, not overwhelming. This way the transformation is easy until, one day, all Microsoft users are under one solution.
Many at the conference had heard promises and ideas for Project Green before, but little has been seen - which led some to ask, "Is Project Green still alive?"
Project Green is "very much alive," replied Mark Jensen, U.S. group product manager for MBS. The way in which it may be surfacing is different from before, but the end point has not changed, he said. "It's a better plan than what we had before," Jensen said. "This way users receive innovation at their own pace. Innovation without disruption - it's the right approach."
The two waves themselves rely on a five-point plan of empowering users, being insightful, staying connected, creating adaptive processes and generating best total cost of ownership. Through these five points, each application's team determined what needed to be changed for the next release.
Yet among all the new upgrades, a commonality is there for more integration with other systems and within Microsoft itself. MBS wants all of its enterprise resource planning products to be able to take unstructured data within MS Office, like e-mails and Word documents, and fit this data within structured processes, like financial reporting. But MBS also wants to make sure that all three major ERP systems are using full Web services capabilities and portals like Business Portal and SharePoint portal.
Great Plains, an ERP solution for small and midsized businesses, is making more of a move to the Web without becoming browser-based. With the new editions of this U.S.-based application being released by the end of this year, Version 8.5 will have more extended Web services through portal features and more integration with MS Office, along with a few other enhanced tools.
By the time Version 9.0 is unveiled, at the end of 2006, Great Plains will be completely .Net enabled, and so all interfacing within the new edition will be through Web services.
"There are no plans for us to do hosting across any category," said Jensen, in an executive Q&A session at Convergence. "The time may come in the future, and we'd have an easy platform to move onto." He added that people "over-attribute customer demand for these services. It's smart for us to wait to offer on-demand."
Jensen also found himself defending MBS as a company in terms of financials. "We don't have a profit problem," he stated. "To say that is to say you don't understand Microsoft. Our revenue is growing faster than our expense line and has been for the last four years. We're investing money."
Some of that money is being invested in making Navision a more recognizable name inside the United States. With 30 percent growth in the United States, Navision is making a move outside its stronghold of Europe and into America.
Navision 4.0, available as of October, comes with 30 different language options, said Mogens Elsberg, general manager for Navision. A user can even have more than one language on their system, having Spanish for one user set as the preference and English for another.
Navision 5.0 will be available by next October, during Wave One. With the new version, users will see more use of and integration with SharePoint, more shortcuts and more customization available.
"The dream is quite simple," said Microsoft's chairman and chief software architect, Bill Gates, in a conference-closing keynote address. "It's that software on any computer connected to the Internet should be able to talk to software on any other computer, independent of where they are located." He added, "There are many big breakthroughs ahead - the natural interface on these systems, the way you'll have them wherever you go, the way they'll hook up to higher speed wireless - but the thing that will determine if that comes through in terms of value is the entire software stack, with the applications at the top."
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