Apps vendors attack midmarket

As vendors jockey for position in the crowded midmarket enterprise applications field, their customers are reaping the benefits in rapid product enhancements. Six ERP (enterprise resource planning) and CRM (customer relationship management) software makers are currently in the midst of major software releases, bringing deeper integration options and added customization features to their applications.

NetSuite went live recently with Version 10.6 of its hosted sales, ERP, and e-commerce applications suite. The update includes broader support for AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and Extensible Markup Language), allowing Web pages to update immediately -- without a complete page reload -- in response to user actions.

"It's a huge performance issue," said NetSuite CEO Zach Nelson. "Transactions that might have taken five seconds are instantaneous."

NetSuite has also extended its integration with third-party programs such as Microsoft's Outlook and Excel, allowing data to automatically flow from NetSuite to Excel in order to update models and other analytical tools. A new tool called Custom Center lets developers build custom user interfaces.

Open-source CRM software maker SugarCRM is preparing to launch an enterprise version of its software, adding Oracle 9i support, an offline client, and advanced reporting functionality. A beta version of Sugar Enterprise Edition is available now, with general availability set for Aug. 15. Sugar Enterprise Edition is priced at US$449 per user per year, while Sugar Professional Edition costs US$239 per year. Sugar also offers a free, open source version of its software.

SugarCRM is also adding to all of its editions a new "module loader" feature to enable quick installation of third-party software extensions. So far, open source developers have created add-ons for SugarCRM, such as language-translation packs, Java-synchronization tools, and timesheet-management features.

RightNow Technologies rolled out the latest version of its hosted CRM service last week. The new version tightens integration between RightNow Sales and Microsoft Outlook, and improves data synchronization in RightNow's offline client.

New features in RightNow Marketing include the addition of SMS (Short Message Service) marketing as a delivery channel and more granular response-tracking mechanisms that can be embedded directly in e-mail messages and other customer communications.

One RightNow customer, industrial supplies wholesaler Beco Holding, has been testing RightNow 7.5 and hopes to push the deployment into production this week. The company began using RightNow Marketing last year to manage the newsletters and product pricing e-mail campaigns it sends to its list of 40,000 customers, said Karen Brinson Yates, application coordination manager at Beco Holding.

Yates particularly likes the way the new version of RightNow handles e-mail response tracking. The software now automatically tracks click-throughs on any URL included in an e-mail message; previously users had to create tracking links manually.

"I pulled up a document I sent out and I could see the tracking link report by clicking right on the actual document -- I didn't have to go looking in a second report," Yates said. "To be able to have that in an e-mail blast is fantastic."

RightNow also introduced two new add-on products, RightNow Telesales and RightNow SmartGuide. The first was designed in conjunction with customers who wanted better outbound call tools, CEO Greg Gianforte said. The software enables managers to create and assign call lists, distribute call scripts, and initiate follow-up communications such as e-mail messages.

The company's other new offering, SmartGuide, is aimed at organizations such as service providers that handle a high volume of customer inquiries and troubleshooting requests. Using a template companies populate with their product service content, SmartGuide prompts users with a series of questions about their issue to guide them toward the relevant information. One early customer is the Australian telecom Telstra, which uses SmartGuide in its broadband business. The software's cost varies depending on the size of the deployment, Gianforte said. Some consulting services are needed to help customers set up their templates.

For its part, CRM maker Salesnet built 50 enhancements -- many aimed at refining users' customization options -- into the just-launched new release of its Salesnet hosted service. A deal import wizard lets users bring in deal records from other CRM and contact management systems, while a "record-to-record relationships" feature enables links between customer objects, such as a parent company and its subsidiaries. Navigational changes are designed to simplify the number of clicks required to complete common tasks.

Salesnet calls the new version a precursor to its "25th anniversary" edition, due toward the end of 2005. That release will mark the 25th version of 8-year-old Salesnet's sales and marketing software. To celebrate, the company plans 250 new features, several of which will significantly expand Salesnet's offerings in areas such as campaign management and product catalog functionality.

Siebel Systems and Salesforce.com also put out major releases in June. Siebel's CRM OnDemand update focuses on collaboration features; Salesforce.com introduced its Multiforce platform for hosting other custom applications built on its architecture.

Siebel also took advantage of last week's LinuxWorld conference to finally hop on the Linux bandwagon, announcing a partnership with Novell that will bring Siebel's core line of enterprise CRM software to Novell's Suse Linux. The company plans to have its Linux version ready in mid-2006, near the time it launches its next applications overhaul, version 8.

Siebel, for its part, took a step toward embracing Linux last year, when it partnered with IBM to enable Siebel's applications to run with IBM's DB2 for Linux database.

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