Microsoft details CRM suite for .Net

Aiming to attract medium-sized business customers in the market for CRM (customer relationship management) software, Microsoft on Thursday detailed a plan to release a new Web-based business application later this year based on its .Net platform.

The software maker plans to ship what it calls Microsoft CRM in North America in the fourth quarter of 2002, the company said. The software suite will provide businesses with 25 to 500 employees with a Web-based system for managing their accounting, human resources, supply chain and customer relationships, Microsoft said. This mid-sized business market is one Microsoft calls "underserved."

The suite will be offered as both a hosted service and a product that companies can deploy internally on their own servers. Based on Microsoft's .Net technology, the software is designed to allow integration with external Web services offered by third parties, such as credit checking, mapping and marketing automation services, the company said. Microsoft first announced plans to offer the CRM offering in February.

"In the enterprise space companies will go out and buy best of breed products and customize (them) for their needs," said David Thacher, general manager of CRM at Microsoft, who presented the software at the company's Mountain View, California, campus Thursday.

"In the mid-market, these businesses don't have the IT resources in-house to build (CRM systems) themselves," he said. "They need something that's out of the box."

The company hopes to encourage businesses that previously considered CRM systems unaffordable to begin deploying systems and to expand them as their businesses grow, officials said.

The software uses technology developed to run on Microsoft's .Net servers and infrastructure. Users access the software through Microsoft's e-mail and calendaring software, Outlook, or via a Web browser. Customers will need to run the software on top of Windows 2000 or Windows NT server software as well as SQL Server 2000, Microsoft's database product. To use the e-mail and messaging functions built into Microsoft CRM, customers will need to be running Exchange and Active Directory, Thacher said.

In its first release, customers will not be able to integrate the software with Lotus Notes, he said.

Microsoft CRM will be available as a hosted service through Microsoft's application service provider (ASP) partners, and can also be run on a server within a company's firewall. The company expects "the vast majority" of customers to deploy it on their own systems, mostly because of concerns about security, Thacher said. Hosted services offer a good way to for customers to try out the software for a short time before they deploy it in house, he said.

Microsoft CRM will go on sale through its partner distributors and customers will be able to license the sales application, the customer service application or the full suite. A standard edition of the product will start at US$395 per user, plus $995 for the server. A professional edition will be priced at up to $1,395 per user, plus $1,990 for the server. Prices will vary depending on the number of users and which features a customer requires.

A beta of the software was made available last week to some customers, Microsoft said. A second beta of Microsoft CRM will be available in August. The North American launch is set for the fourth quarter, with international releases to follow in the first quarter of 2003.

Microsoft has pieced together its CRM division, called Microsoft Business Solutions, from products and services acquired from its acquisitions of Great Plains Software and, more recently, of Navision Software A/S, as well as from its Microsoft bCentral offerings. It is pitching these products at least in part at customers who can't afford to by software from major vendors such as SAP AG and PeopleSoft Inc.

Among other offerings in the market, at least two vendors recently announced CRM products that will compete with the Redmond, Washington, vendor in the mid-market. UpShot Corp., a Mountain View, California, company, last month released a CRM application based on .Net called UpShot Office. The software includes Web-based CRM applications that tie into Microsoft Office applications including Word and Excel.

Another vendor, Epicor Software Corp., was expected to release the beta version this month of its CRM application based on .Net that is aimed at a similar audience as Microsoft CRM, said Greg Horton, director of marketing at Epicor, in an earlier interview.

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