Exchange To Support CRM Developers

Developers of Microsoft Exchange applications will also get tools that also link to Microsoft upcoming CRM platform.

Microsoft Corp. will add application development support for its recently announced MSCRM platform to its Exchange messaging software, which should please small-to-mid-size businesses who already use Exchange and are expected to be MSCRM target customers.

The customer service management applications will be designed to be extended by developers using other Microsoft technologies, according to company officials. Exchange, for its part, will expose Simple Object Access Protocol-based interfaces into MSCRM and developers will be able to use .Net development tools to build applications against those interfaces.

The Redmond, Wash., company will leave it up to third-party developers to add MSCRM-specific application development tools, officials said.

Also planned is tighter integration between the Outlook e-mail client—which is one of the clients users will access MSCRM applications with—and Exchange, allowing data such as contacts, appointments, tasks and e-mails to be bi-directionally synchronized between Outlook and MSCRM. This would give remote users like traveling salespeople offline access to their CRM applications.

Microsoft will also put user interface hooks into Outlook, including an Outlook shortcut bar and folder menu links, that will enable MSCRM application to run inside Outlook.

Microsoft officials would not say when these enhancements will be in place, though MSCRM is expected to ship by the end of the year.

Any improvements in Exchanges CRM application development capabilities as well as Outlook as a CRM application client should be welcome among Exchange developers. Chris Swinney, IT consultant at FAB Solutions and Systems in Swansea, Wales, builds small-business CRM apps using Exchange and Outlook and finds their CRM capabilities fairly limited.

"The problem is that Outlook in its raw form, even when teamed up with Exchange and all the other Office products, is no more than a good personal information manager—with the emphasis on the personal," said Swinney. "Without a lot of reworking it is not really a decent CRM package."

Its that reworking that FAB Solutions does for his clients today, hoping to give them a CRM add-on to Microsoft Small Business Server 2000 thats less expensive than packaged CRM software targeted to small businesses. FAB also looks to add Microsoft SharePoint Team Services to provide integrated contact and document management.

Swinney said the new developments are welcome though nonetheless frustrating.

"I believed long ago that should we ever start to develop in Outlook and Exchange, within months Microsoft would have developed, launched and cleaned up their product," he said. "I dont mind this so much but just cant understand why they havent done this a little sooner.

"Their products are getting better and when they put their mind to something, Im sure they could come up with a simple, easy-to-use and intuitive update to Outlook that will provide everything we can do and more in such a way that an entire group knows what is happening rather than individuals," Swinney said.

Officials at IBM Corp.s Lotus Software division dismissed the MS Exchange CRM application development efforts as ground that their Domino messaging and groupware server has already covered.

Lotus, of Cambridge, Mass., has some application development improvements of its own that could benefit CRM application developers in the forthcoming Domino 6, expected the middle of this year. There are interface improvements designed to make end users more productive such as less cryptic dialogue boxes and faster access to menu commands, Lotus officials said.

Domino 6 will also allow customer data to be stored natively in IBM DB2 databases—as opposed to just the Domino database as in current versions—providing faster and easier access to CRM applications.