Microsoft is in for the long haul as far as its business applications are concerned with a 10-year development plan and a new Microsoft Business Framework to support the basket of disparate applications offered under the Microsoft Business Solutions banner.
In an interview with ComputerWire, Simon Edwards UK MD of Microsoft Business Solutions gave further insight into the development plans for the division and revealed that the next generation of applications from the company will be based on a single code base managed via a new platform to be known as the Microsoft Business Framework.
The Business Framework, which will run on top of the .NET platform, will consist of two layers: base level common services covering integration and including workflow and security functionality whose purpose will be to bind together the processes typically run within application software; and a layer consisting of common components and processes used by application software including object entities such as customer or account definitions for example.
Microsoft will then offer another layer of functionality in the form of business applications to provide for CRM, SCM or ERP capability.
Its aim is to use loosely coupled objects communicating via Web Services and XML to enable all three layers to be exposed and communicate with each other with a view to generating better application interoperability and integration, no matter who writes the components. In theory, components on any level will be able to be swapped in and out enabling new functionality provided by Microsoft, end-user organizations or Microsoft partners to be added. In fact, while it is building the framework and plans to deliver a range of horizontal and a limited number of vertical market applications itself, Microsoft is designing the technology stack so as to draw in application partners to drive momentum and build credibility for the approach.
The expanding technology stack is part of Microsoft Business Solutions' goal to provide end-to-end software support for the SME business sector via an integrated application platform, and attempts to address the issue of how the division will manage and integrate its disparate mix of applications which include those from Great Plains and Navision plus its own home-grown offerings. With this proto-framework Microsoft is aiming to change the perception of what constitutes the base for an application platform, said Edwards.
An early version of the framework is slated to hit the market early in 2003 with a revision at the end of 2003 but given the time lag between technology development and adoption, Edwards said he does not expect to see much in the way of implementation until 2005 and is looking to 2007 or 2008, when the next technology refreshment wave is expected to hit the mid-market, before the framework will come into widespread usage.
If there were any doubts over how big an effort Microsoft planned to make in the applications mid-market they are rapidly being dispelled. The division has been identified as one of the seven pillars of the wider Microsoft business and while it only produces revenue of $0.5bn at the moment, a paltry sum compared to that of some of Microsoft's other divisions, the goal is to be generating revenue of $10bn in 10 years time. Edwards says the strategy is a 10-year gamble aimed at getting mid-market companies connected.
It is clear that Microsoft is banking on its might to win the mid-market through sheer weight of resources. In addition to its long range technology plan, and the all-embracing framework which is designed to entice third-party application vendors to the Microsoft .NET platform as much as provide end user organizations with an application platform, it is continuing to invest in its existing applications.
"Existing products have a 12 year lifecycle," said Edwards. "Even when we have the Microsoft Business Framework we will still support and invest [in existing products] at the same levels, in order to keep customers and take them forward. There will be no product rationalization of Microsoft or acquired products. We are adding new products and integrating them with present products to provide for a common customer experience." As he pointed out, most developers would have to decide whether to focus on old, current or next-generation developments, but Microsoft has the resources to address all three areas of development.
On one level, Microsoft is biding its time, allowing natural market rhythms to dictate the technology transition, but at a more fundamental level it is positioning itself to dominate the highly fragmented mid-market. Whether or not it is successful depends on whether it can make the complex task of component integration straightforward and cost-effective enough for its mid-market target. It is a huge undertaking, but it is clear that it is ready to pour the resources in to achieve it.