Microsoft Struts Its Stuff
Microsoft is flying high, certainly internally, after four important announcements in the last couple of weeks: Windows 8, Windows Phone 8, its all-important new Surface tablet, and the MarketingPilot acquisition. It has also made some important announcements around Dynamics CRM. I was at one of its campuses last week for a couple of days' worth of briefings and conversations, so there is a lot to unpack and in the interest of not perseverating there may be some things that get scant attention here, not due to lack of interest, but for respect to your eyeballs.
Truth in reporting: I was a Microsoft's guest for this event; they paid for my travel. To be blunt, I can't afford to fly around to event after event on my nickel, so when vendors wish to brief me in person, that's how I travel. We all understand that the delights of two six-hour flights (economy) in three days, including a redeye, are not enough inducement to make me gush about anybody's products, OK?
First off, if it were any other company, the whole Windows/Surface thing might be a distraction from CRM and not worth mentioning, but that's not the case. Microsoft is bullish on its integrated and seamless family of devices, operating systems and applications, and its people have reason to be proud.
The user interface from Windows to the phone to the Surface is a complete reimagining of how users interact with computing -- less transactional and more relational. The metaphor is tiles of objects that make computing intuitive and it is very nice to play with -- a real winner. Is it better than whatever else is on the market? In some ways it is, and in some ways a first encounter with it can be bewildering, but only because you have another metaphor in mind. I like to think that I can learn and get accustomed to any UI, so the differences between this one and others is to a large extent what you get used to.
I haven't spent enough time with Windows 8 to give a more nuanced opinion, but I think that if given the chance, it would be fun to experience and learn. What's more interesting is that, with differences to accommodate different devices and screen sizes, Windows is a real family with plenty of congruency from device to device -- and that's good.
Dynamics sits astride that entire infrastructure, and Microsoft is fond of saying that it is the unifying fabric of its approach to more-or-less ubiquitous computing. The company has made great progress in the ERP world, offering more cloud orientation. In CRM, Microsoft has largely done what it's going to do strategically with the cloud, and for a person like me that is somewhat disappointing, if also understandable.
The reality is that there are Salesforce and NetSuite and their ecosystems running in what I refer to as true multi-tenant cloud mode, and there is everyone else. When I say everyone else, I mean the vendors like SAP, Oracle and Microsoft, who have large installed populations that have to be brought along incrementally into cloud computing.
As a practical matter, all these vendors have hybrid and multi-tier strategies that enable their customers to move to the cloud piecemeal while maintaining a sizeable investment in legacy computing. They are the amphibians and today must be considered the Devonian Period of cloud computing. Fair enough.
The interesting CRM bits of last week were both tactical and strategic. Tactically, you can read everything you need to know about Microsoft's new and more aggressive approach to the market in its decision to support Apple's Safari browser. I saw demos of Dynamics CRM on a MacBook and an iPad running fine -- and this glasnost extended to Chrome as well. In all, this ushers in what Kirill Tatarinov, Microsoft Business Systems president, called a "new era of devices and services."
The services Tatarinov referenced are not limited to implementation but include encouraging partners to develop business services oriented toward helping end customers get the most out of their products. It could not be otherwise. As cloud computing takes over more of the available market, partners will need to shift from a heavy emphasis on implementation services and upgrades to consulting and perhaps outsourcing business services. This process is largely under way after a significant partner channel reordering conducted over the last two years.
Dynamics CRM is pushing the 3-million-user mark and has notched 33 consecutive quarters of double-digit growth. The company has large customers with sophisticated deployments, too -- something that I didn't see, but did hear about in previous analyst briefings.
I have to say, I don't understand why a vendor would trot out a new customer who is not fully implemented as Microsoft did with European retailer Carrefour, but it did. Carrefour was presented as an example of an AX accounting success and in a few months I believe it will be.
Closer to home, the railroad, CSX, provided a good example of a sophisticated CRM deployment of 1,300 users with 350 core sales and marketing users live and more service users waiting in the wings. There is nothing standardized about selling rail services, and this implementation is a real showcase for Microsoft.
CRM has a clean interface with enough white space to put you at ease and horizontal scrolling that is a pleasure once you get accustomed to it. I liked the way the UI is fully configurable and the fact that even when fields are changed, the system keeps the old data handy for analytics.
Advances in Communication
Most interesting to me was the consolidation of Lync and Skype into the new Communications Business Group, and the evident and successful integration of Skype into CRM business processes. However, there's more to be done, more business processes to be supported, and more to be invented. Some of the panel discussions we saw included participants brought in by Skype who showed the power and utility of embedding video communication in line-of-business applications. I hope Microsoft continues down this path because it is a solid differentiator and an emerging business challenge for many companies.
On the distaff side of the ledger, I have to remind everyone of the old truism that the best technology does not always win the race. Heck, I bet it doesn't even win most of the time. In this market, the best marketing wins most of the marbles, and in this area, Microsoft has some distance to go. Throughout my two days "no other company on earth" became a familiar expression. I heard these words used often to describe the end-to-end depth of technologies the company is offering. That's all good, but I found Microsoft's ability to translate that into practical business benefits and advantages for customers still nascent. To be fair, messaging often follows a product introduction; otherwise a vendor will quickly become known for over-promising and under-delivering.
So my biggest takeaways from the event are, first, that Microsoft has made some good down payments on the technology front, but there's more to be done. For instance, the company's approach to social and marketing, with the recent acquisition of MarketingPilot, is still embryonic. Core CRM is in a good place, though. Second, the company is at a relative disadvantage in that it's main competitors in CRM and ERP have charismatic, or at least notorious, CEOs as visionaries plying the market.
Microsoft still needs to breed and develop a spokesperson who can personify the vision and drive adoption of its entire Dynamics portfolio. Bill Gates could pull this off in a reprise performance but sans Seinfeld or anyone like him. That would be a temporary solution, however. So, while there is certainly more product to be developed, it should be good to know that not everything that needs to come forth next from Microsoft is code.