Microsoft to manage customer relationships on .Net

Microsoft will deliver its first .Net service for businesses in the fourth quarter, the company announced Tuesday. Microsoft Customer Relationship Management will be packaged as either stand-alone software or a hosted service, aimed at small and medium-size companies.

The package will provide a single, integrated view of contacts with customers, working with Microsoft's Office desktop productivity software and back-office systems from its subsidiary Great Plains Software Inc., and will be accessible from Microsoft Outlook or a Web browser, according to a company statement.

It will be available either as a stand-alone product or integrated with Great Plains Dynamics, Solomon and eEnterprise back-office products, and sold in boxed or hosted versions, Microsoft said.

North American users should see the product in the fourth quarter this year, sold by Great Plains' usual resellers, or hosted by selected partners. Elsewhere, it will be introduced in phases starting in the first quarter of 2003. The price will be announced later this year, Microsoft said.

Microsoft took pains to reassure channel partners and integrators that this was not the start of a march into the high-end customer relationship management (CRM) market. The company will continue to address the needs of medium-size businesses through its alliance with Siebel Systems Inc., it said in a statement.

Market watchers, too, see little prospect of Microsoft muscling its way into the high end of the CRM market. SAP, Peoplesoft and Oracle will continue to have the advantages of market domination, product maturity and market reach, at least until 2004, according to Nick Hewson, director of strategic planning at Hewson Consulting Ltd. in the U.K.

"By 2004 the complexity of CRM projects will not have gone away and will be demanding more front to back office integration. I do not believe that this is a market that Microsoft can march into and take at will," Hewson said, in an e-mail response to questions.

Microsoft already offers a number of CRM products for small and medium-size businesses. Its hosted, subscription-based bCentral service offers e-mail, appointment and customer service management. Other CRM software from its Great Plains division includes eEnterprise Field Service, for medium-size customers in technology industries; Solomon Field Service, vertical-market system for heating contractors, and the cobranded Great Plains Siebel Front Office.

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