The pattern was unmistakable: Outlook, Sharepoint, business applications. Outlook, Sharepoint, business applications.

That was the repeated message from Microsoft executives at the company's Convergence user conference in Dallas last week. It was the biggest message, even though it wasn't the subject of a specific press release.

But it was clear that business applications such as the Dynamics CRM and financial software lines are becoming part of something much bigger, something that in itself looks like THE new platform.

The ability to have applications that have the Outlook look and feel, coupled with the ability to have roles-based access to business applications via Sharepoint, looks like the most important thing that is happening with the company's business software.

It's not clear that Microsoft is peddling this as a separate platform. Asked about the connection, Doug Burgum, the head of Microsoft Business Services, said that instead they should probably be thought of as side-by-side platforms. It is, however, clearly what Burgum has meant when he has talked about products that transcend divisional boundaries in Microsoft and draw from different disciplines.

Applications are not going to be applications as we have thought of them, probably since the beginning of the personal computer era. They will not be programs that are identified by separate functionality. That's how we have ended up with accounting firms that typically have scores of programs. These will be programs that bring the functions the user needs together in one interface in a way that has not occurred in the past.

In a demonstration, Satya Nadella, the MBS corporate VP responsible for research and development, talked about the emergence of composite applications, which bring together the functionalities that are currently compartmentalized in different programs.

Nadella showed screens in which a worker could have a portal view of the necessary portal data while also being able to compose a letter to a customer in Word and access the Internet without leaving the original interface.

There are two major issues this approach may address: usability and maintainability. If all applications have the same interface, training is easier. It may make it easier for companies to switch applications (from something else to Microsoft), for example.

Maintainability is the ability of a company's IT department, be it one person with computer skills handling a part-time assignment, or a formal department, to maintain and support a wide variety of code bases. If there are fewer separate code bases, this will be easier to accomplish and less expensive.

Convergence was the first time this message has been rolled out with such a conspicuous effort. And while the composite apps that Nadella discussed appear to be in rudimentary form, they won't be for long.

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