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Doug Henschen
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Infor Bets $500 Million On Enterprise App Refresh

Infor cranks out new user interfaces and social and cloud options for its enterprise apps to take on SAP, Oracle and Microsoft.

One by one, at Infor's annual Informum conference in Orlando, Fla., CEO Charles Phillips on Monday flashed screen shots and offered quick critiques of the look and feel of competing enterprise applications.

SAP? "This order form was probably designed in the 1980s and it's been there ever since -- not very pleasing to use," said Philips. Oracle PeopleSoft? "Very crowded screen; looks like a 1995 website." Microsoft Dynamics? "Pretty much everything in Microsoft looks like an Excel spreadsheet." JD Edwards World? "I'm not even sure what that is -- looks like DOS." Workday? "A more recent company, but they designed their UI seven years ago; it's hard to read with small text and not a good layout."

"The bottom line," said Phillips, "is that enterprise software sucks."

The punchline drew a big laugh from Inforum's 6,000-plus attendees, and it led to a tour of a series of slick new user interfaces announced here along with the company's latest Infor 10x wave of applications, which span financials, human capital management, enterprise asset management, supply chain management, product lifecycle management, CRM and core ERP systems including Hansen, LN, M3, SyteLine, SX.e and S3.

[ Want more on Infor's two largest competitors? Read SAP Outperforms Oracle With Steady Financial Results. ]

Some of Infor's ERP systems are as old or older than the apps Phillips critiqued, but he was getting to those slick new "SoHo" interfaces, just one example of some $500 million in investments he said the company is putting into revitalizing the portfolio. Other investments announced here included additional industry-specific functionality, a new Ming.le social interface and new cloud-deployment options supported by IBM and Amazon Web Services.

Infor didn't make any fresh claims about market share gains, but Phillips said the company is intent on ending the SAP-Oracle "duopoly."

Infor's consumery new interfaces are being turned out by an internal design team, dubbed "Hook & Loop," set up at Infor's new headquarters in New York and headed by design veterans who helped bring more usable interfaces to Google's DoubleClick advertising platform.

"We think the way the applications look and behave and the experience with those applications will be a deciding factor for the next generation of users, whether they'll use these applications and who you'll be able to hire," Phillips said.

Infor Ming

The SoHo app interfaces include cross-application business intelligence dashboards, key performance indicators (KPIs) and report screens with clean-looking layouts, lots of white space and rich data visualizations. Hook & Loop VP Marc Scibelli, one of the design gurus, flashed a gaming interface that helped inspire a new sales-performance dashboard. He also insisted the modern interfaces don't amount to "lipstick on a pig" because his team is actually talking to users about how they interact with the applications, and in many cases we're asking for new fields and functionality to match the linear flow of how work gets done.

Infor's new Ming.le social app is another SoHo app, but it's built on Infor's XML- and Web-services-based Intelligent Open Network (ION) middleware. The collaboration platform lets users follow people, applications, KPIs, data, documents, workflows and any system-generated event. Oil & Gas exploration supplier Preferred Sands, for example, is using Ming.le to handle inventory queries across company and third-party distribution partners. The app provides what Luke Rains, the company's supply chain manager, described as a "consistent, human-friendly interface," making information from the company's SyteLine ERP system and ION-integrated third-party apps accessible to employees and partner employees.

"Before everybody had to go into SyteLine for inventory lookups, ION for approving requisitions and email to look at all the back-and-forth communications about requests, but now it's all in Ming.le," said Rains in an interview with InformationWeek.

Think of Ming.le as Twitter meets knowledge discovery, enterprise apps, business workflows and data, as you can learn who else is subscribing to and posting comments about the things you care about.

Infor touts its ability to deliver applications on-premises, in private clouds or on public clouds, but Phillips commented during a question-and-answer session that the company isn't interested in investing in "ping, power and pipe," meaning building data centers. "We'd rather put our money into our applications."

Instead, Infor relies on IBM and Amazon for cloud infrastructure, though Infor handles all application management and provisioning no matter which partner provides the infrastructure. On Monday it made two notable announcements with its cloud partners.

IBM was already a hosting partner, but Infor and IBM announced new deployment modes including public-cloud options on IBM's SmartCloud. "IBM obviously has a lot of System I and Power [Server] capabilities... and they're helpful to us outside the U.S. as well," Phillips said. Several Infor Apps run on IBM System I (formerly AS/400) and Power Series Servers, and IBM's global presence helps because Infor gets more than 40% of its revenue outside of the U.S.

Amazon Web Services is used for public cloud app deployments on the EC2 service, but a new Sky Vault option announced Monday will run ION Business Vault data warehouses on Amazon's RedShift massively parallel processing database service. Business Vaults can grow quite large, so Sky Vault makes large-scale data warehousing easier and more affordable than on-premises warehouses, according to Infor.

Phillips touted Amazon's rapid scaling, "great" provisioning tools and track record on reducing costs. RedShift, he said, makes sense for Sky Vault by virtue of its low-cost -- starting at 85 cents per hour for a single-node with 2 terabytes of storage -- coupled with the fact that many customers already have databases in Amazon's cloud.

"It's a one-click copy command to move that data over to Redshift," he said.

Sizing Up The Competition

In contrast to SAP, which touts a mobile-first strategy as the key route to core application renewal, Infor (like Microsoft Dynamics) is emphasizing modern interfaces on the apps themselves.

Infor has a mobile strategy, too, but it got short shrift here, probably because more has been promised than delivered. Infor has seven native iOS and Android mobile apps to date. New HTML5 front-end interfaces essentially support browser-based viewing on laptops and tablets, but as seen with other HTML5 efforts, it is questionable how much device-native functionality, such as touch and gesture control, you'll get on tablets.

Phillips' spoke often of challenging SAP and Oracle, and his executives touted a mock "Save the People" program, though they were serious in promising to reduce current Oracle PeopleSoft maintenance costs by 20% by way of Infor replacements. Execs also talked about going after would-be Workday customers more aggressively with improved combinations of human capital management and financials apps.

The competitor that Infor encounters more often than executives let on is Microsoft Dynamics, a point confirmed by analyst Ray Wang of Constellation Research. "A lot of new ERP business is going to [Oracle] JD Edwards and Microsoft, but with everything that Infor is doing, a lot of people are starting to consider them," Wang said.

In truth, Infor's biggest competitor is likely complacency among literally tens of thousands of legacy customers who have historically been all too willing to keep ERP systems running for more than a decade without upgrading. Until the last two years, Infor didn't give those customers many reasons to upgrade. But that has clearly changed, and in many cases Infor is going over IT's head and appealing directly to line-of-business executives with new features, functions and those slick new interfaces.

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