Microsoft rebrands CRM, hints at hosted

Microsoft CRM customers and partners face another change as the company unveils plans to unify and rebrand its Business Solutions products into one package for the midmarket.

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Microsoft is making a harder push at the midmarket.

On Wednesday, Microsoft said at its first Business Summit in Redmond that it is rebranding its Business Solutions products. All products will transition to the Microsoft Dynamics name over the course of the year. Its CRM, Axapta, Great Plains, Navision and Solomon products will adopt a common look and come together under the Dynamics line of business applications. Microsoft CRM will be sold both as a part of the Dynamics line and as a standalone product.

In addition, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said the company would give San Francisco-based Salesforce.com a "very effective run for its money." He said Microsoft will provide "details to come when appropriate" concerning hosted CRM. Microsoft currently offers CRM as a hosted application through partners, but it is not designed to run on a multi-tenant architecture.

Going forward, Microsoft's CRM will be packaged with other business software designed for the midmarket under the Dynamics umbrella and labeled Microsoft Dynamics CRM.

"These products will embrace more of the same look and feel, with elements such as contextual business intelligence, a more similar and intuitive user interface and user experience, and a greater emphasis on portals," said Tami Reller, corporate vice president of Microsoft Business Solutions Marketing Group, in a statement.

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Microsoft also said it plans to release Centro, a midmarket server software bundle that will combine the Windows operating system, management tools and the Exchange e-mail server. That package will not ship until 2007, after Microsoft ships the next version of its Windows Server operating system, labeled Longhorn, the company said.

Microsoft defines the midmarket as companies with between 100 and 500 employees.

Formerly known as "Project Green," Microsoft Dynamics is intended to "work the way people in midsized businesses work," according to the company. That means development efforts targeted at role-based software. Microsoft is still promising tighter integration between its CRM and Office suite of products, particularly with Outlook.

"It looks like a way to simplify a lot of their business and issues," said Brian Bruffey, president and CEO of ProTech Associates Inc., a Microsoft partner in Laurel, Md. "I love the fact they're showing a commitment to the Microsoft Business Solutions team. CRM's what we bet our business on."

Change is nothing new for Microsoft's CRM customers. The next version, scheduled for release to manufacturing in the fourth quarter of this year,  jumped from version 1.2 to version 3.0. Customers have also seen repeated delays in the release of new versions of the Microsoft CRM product.

"Definitely in the short term it's confusing," said Laurie McCabe, vice president of SMB insights and business solutions with Access Markets International Partners in New York. "The bottom line is, the integration is key for them. It's key for the customer, as well as all these things they're doing for role-based computing. They have so many announcements right now out of the midmarket it's a little much for the average customer to absorb it all at once."

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