Microsofts move, detailed earlier this month at its Convergence conference, is an immediate result of the companys "Project Green," which is intended to unite the MBS applications—Great Plains, Solomon, Navision, Axapta and Microsoft CRM—under a single code base.
While the unified code base remains a stated direction for the Redmond, Wash., company, talk among customers and partners at the conference was that that phase of Project Green is still at least five years away.
Microsoft officials gave no timetable for the unified code base, saying only that it will come at the end of Project Green.
Meanwhile, the company is undertaking a number of initiatives under the Project Green umbrella designed to make Microsofts business application software more palatable to larger organizations.
Starting this year and running through 2007, Microsoft plans to enhance its MBS product lines with support for role-based user interfaces, embedded business intelligence and reporting capabilities through SQL Server tools and Excel; collaboration capabilities through SharePoint Services; and Web services integration.
The second wave of Project Green, set for 2008, will put all MBS applications on a model-driven SOA basis, letting business users with little technical training customize software.
Customers interviewed at the show welcomed the promised improvements, but they remained apprehensive about a unified code base.
"I think everyones somewhat leery of Project Green," said Tom Turney, data processing manager for Beltservice Corp., an Axapta customer in Earth City, Mo. "Everyones wondering, What will it do to my application? We want to have that comfort level that in two years, theyre not going to be telling us our application is not supported, and we are either put in maintenance mode or have to upgrade."
Microsoft announced at Convergence that it was extending full support for current products to five years from the release date, up from the current three. Online support will be available for up to eight years from the release date.
Microsoft also announced at the show a Deluxe level of support services targeted at customers with more than $75 million in revenues—another sign the company is looking to move upmarket.
Beltservice has customized its Axapta code and trained in-house programmers in Axaptas proprietary X++ language. Turney is concerned that the company could lose those investments if Microsofts product road map forces it to use Visual Studio .Net as its development tool. But, he said, it could be worth it in the end.
Charles Feister, systems programmer at Hutchens Industries Inc., a Navision customer in Springfield, Mo., also has concerns. "Microsoft brings a lot of good things, but they leave some loopholes," Feister said. "Look at their OS and Internet products; theyre constantly plugging holes."
Feister said he likes what hes seen of Project Green in the upcoming Navision 4.0 release, including the SharePoint integration and the role-based UI. "They have a lot of good enhancements in this release, but theres room for growth," Feister said, adding that he wasnt concerned about the code base of his Navision application changing any time soon.
"Theyre different languages, different concepts," Feister said. "Navision is different from Great Plains, which is different from Axapta. Its going to take time for them to come up with something that spans everything. Microsoft is too big not to see it through."
Laura Restiaux, operations manager for Digital Content Factory Ltd., a Great Plains customer with just 12 users, brushed off concerns that Microsoft could ignore small companies such as hers in its quest for larger midmarket companies and enterprise departments. "Theyd be fools if they didnt go after the larger companies," said Restiaux in Winnipeg, Manitoba. "But I dont think theyre ignoring the little guys."
While Microsoft officials said MBS customers were just two major upgrades away from taking full advantage of Project Green, they also said getting through those upgrades will pose challenges.
Moving up to the Project Green technology will require moving up to the next version of the SQL Server database, code-named Yukon, to get the BI functionality in Green, and moving up to the next version of Windows to take advantage of Microsofts next-generation Web services, code-named Indigo, officials said.
"Some things will be an upgrade, some things will be a migration, some things will be a conversion," said Dave Coulombe, general manager of MBS Fargo, N.D., Development Center. "There will be varying degrees of pain."
Coulombe said customers will be able to move forward on Project Green "at their own pace."