Microsoft to update Dynamics CRM, add Marketplace

Microsoft revealed some of the features of the forthcoming CRM upgrade at its partner conference, including Marketplace, a repository of partner applications and extensions.

Today at its Worldwide Partner Conference, Microsoft described the new features of its forthcoming CRM update, Microsoft Dynamics CRM 2011.

Formerly referred to as "CRM 5," the fifth release of Microsoft's CRM software includes new and tighter integration with Microsoft Outlook and the Office suite, role-tailored designs and new analytics and data visualization capabilities. It will be available as a public beta release in September.

Microsoft's integration with its Office products, specifically Outlook, is a strong differentiator for the company, according to Warren Wilson, an analyst with Ovum. Dynamics CRM 2011 will include a contextual CRM Ribbon for Outlook and browser clients.

"What that really does is it lets you take full advantage of Outlook features, conditional formatting and the other things we do in Outlook," said Brad Wilson, general manager of Microsoft Dynamics CRM. "We're treating CRM data the same way we treat email data, making it a more Outlook-native experience."

The new CRM release will also allow users with a SharePoint Server to provision document repositories and embed them directly within the CRM application.

"Integration across the Microsoft product line is really one of their differentiators," Warren Wilson said. "Outlook with SharePoint and Dynamics. CRM with SharePoint, everything with SharePoint it seems lately."

However, that integration comes with a caveat, Wilson said.

"The downside of that broad-based Microsoft integration is that it's pretty much limited to Microsoft platforms," he said. "It's not an option if you're in a situation with AIX or Linux. Their browser support is limited to Internet Explorer. Given their dominance on the desktop, and with Windows Server, that's attractive for many companies but not for all of them. Certainly, Firefox and Safari have their strong adherents."

Microsoft is also releasing the Microsoft Dynamics Marketplace, a repository of complementary applications and extensions built by partners. The marketplace will go live in September.

"You can actually download and install from the marketplace to CRM online and CRM on-premise," Brad Wilson said. "It's available outside of the product but also inside of the product."

The Marketplace replaces Microsoft's Solution Finder, a directory of partners and solutions.

"The fact that the marketplace is embedded in the application will help bring in more partners and help customers find the right partners with the most useful extension," Warren Wilson said.

Additionally, CRM 2011 will give customers and partners more freedom to store server-side code in Microsoft data centers, Warren Wilson said.

"To this point, Microsoft has put pretty tight restrictions on what it allows on its own servers; customers/partners could do a lot of configuration, but not actual customization of Dynamics CRM Online," Wilson said. "If customers needed more extensive customization they either had to deploy on-premise or use a partner with its own hosting facilities. This new capability expands the range of options for both customers and partners but should be of particular benefit to partners, I think, because they can now build code for multiple customers and store it in Microsoft data centers rather than their own."

Microsoft is also throwing its partners a bone. Members of the Microsoft Partner Network will be given licenses for up to 250 seats of Microsoft Dynamics CRM Online for internal use.

Microsoft is including new data visualizations in the application, allowing users to quickly create and share inline charts.

"It's not just dashboards, where you can have a collection of visuals, although we do have dashboards that are drillable," Brad Wilson said, "but being able to add visualization to help you better understand the data you're looking at."

Goal management features allow users to define key performance indicators and business health indicators on their own.

The enhancements will be released first to the Software as a Service (SaaS) offering, Microsoft Dynamics CRM Online, followed a few months later with a release to the on-premise product. That is the schedule Microsoft will stick to for the foreseeable future with two upgrades a year, Brad Wilson said.

The option of moving between SaaS and on-premise deployment models is another area of differentiation for Microsoft. As Rob Desisto, an analyst with Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Research Inc. noted at the recent Customer 360 Summit, some customers are taking their applications off SaaS and bringing them back in-house.

"I don't think anybody's offering it in quite the same way that Microsoft is," Warren Wilson said. "SAP will be offering an online CRM module through Business ByDesign, but it's not the same single code base offering. If you've got that subsidiary on Business ByDesign, you're tied to two different code bases."

Microsoft is also broadening its global reach for Dynamics CRM. In addition to the 32 markets for CRM Online it announced in April, it has added Australia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Chile, Cyprus, Peru and Trinidad and Tobago.

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