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Microsoft CRM offers relief after rough week

After a week of getting pummeled for product release delays, Microsoft is hoping Dynamics CRM can change the story.

DALLAS -- Following a week when Microsoft was criticized for forcing technology stocks down and pushing Christmas right off the calendar, executives at Convergence 2006 here worked to grab some good-news headlines with an improved CRM product.

In the days leading up to its annual Business Solution Group's conference, anyone talking about Microsoft was focused on the delay of its new operating system, Vista, and its Office product for consumers – a move seen as a big threat to PC holidays sales. This week, the company is striving to make Dynamics CRM the real story.

Today the company released a slew of enhancements to Dynamics CRM, including a new version of its Professional Edition for Service Providers, revamped for hosting environments, and prepackaged connectors to Microsoft's ERP applications. The company recently announced a  slew of enterprise CRM customer wins.

For customers such as Robert Taylor, IT director at West Point, Miss.-based Haas Outdoors Inc., Dynamics CRM is the real story.

"It's gone really well," Taylor said of his Dynamics 3.0 project. Taylor deployed Microsoft CRM six months ago, after having left CRM 1.2 sitting on a shelf because of high sales staff turnover. But 3.0 is helping the sales team, who were not very tech-savvy to begin with, Taylor said. "Some of these guys never opened their laptops. Just like anything, we had to really pitch it, but we got buy-in from upper management."

Interest in Microsoft's CRM application has spiked since it released 3.0 in December, following a series of delays. Many customers, like Taylor, say they appreciate the benefits of CRM integration with Outlook – a familiar application that end users feel confident about using.

In a question-and-answer session following a Sunday morning keynote speech, Jeff Raikes, president of the Microsoft Business Division, drove home Dynamics CRM's competitive strategy. However, that came after a glitch during Raikes' keynote, when, attempting to show improved integration with CRM and the next Office release, he failed to display a PowerPoint preview feature from within Outlook.

"There's a lot of interoperability and it really puts people in context of their roles," Raikes said, promising more integration to come between Great Plains 10.0 and Office 2007. "It's a great opportunity for you to drive role-based productivity in your business."

And while Microsoft previewed the next version of Microsoft Dynamics AX 4.0 (formerly Microsoft Axapta, one of the Dynamics ERP products), CRM sessions are some of the most heavily attended here, and interest in the product remains high thanks largely to integration with existing Office products.

"[Attendees] are excited," said Ray Wang, analyst with Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research. "[CRM is] their fastest growing area. For Microsoft customers and partners, the big win is the Outlook integration."

Today, Microsoft introduced a series of prepackaged connectors and templates for Dynamics CRM and Dynamics ERP products for third-party CRM systems, such as those from Siebel Systems Inc., SAP AG, and Oracle Corp. The connectors will be delivered over the next 12 months. The connector to Microsoft Dynamics GP (the former Great Plains application) is available immediately.

Also, the CRM Professional Edition has been enhanced for hosted deployments around the world. Microsoft has not released any details on its next version, code-named Titan, which will feature multi-tenancy and allow Microsoft to compete more directly with San Francisco-based, the leader in the on-demand CRM market. Multi-tenancy allows vendors to keep multiple customers in one data center, thereby providing economies of scale.

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