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Microsoft Touts Dynamics Upgrades, Hazy Cloud-ERP Plan

Ballmer says consumer plays including phones, tablets, and even Kinect benefit Microsoft enterprise app customers, but scants details were offered on cloud-based enterprise resource planning.

Microsoft on Monday made a series of Dynamics applications-related announcements at its Convergence 2011 event in Atlanta. The highlights were clearly the public beta of Dynamics AX 2012 and an announcement that Microsoft will move ERP apps into the cloud. Details were plentiful on AX 2012 but negligible on cloud-based ERP.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer was on hand at Convergence to underscore the significance of the company's tenth anniversary in enterprise applications (by way of its Great Plains Software acquisition in 2001). He emphasized that enterprise apps are not a stand-alone business for Microsoft by pointing to connections with the company's consumer-oriented technologies.

As if to remind the 9,000-plus attendees of Microsoft's relevance, Ballmer said Windows is present on more than 1 billion computers. He noted that Gartner and IDC both predict "we'll be the number-two phone software vendor by 2015" building on Windows Phone 7. The Kinect game controller has been named the fastest-selling consumer device ever by the Guiness Book of World Records, Ballmer said, noting sales of 8 million units in 60 days.

Reinforcing these points, Windows Phone 7, a Windows-based tablet (version unknown), and the Kinect game controller later showed up in AX 2012 demos. Ballmer also reiterated his Microsoft-is-all-in-on-the-cloud mantra saying that Windows Azure, SQL Azure, and Office 365 would figure in enterprise application deployments. More on that last point in moment.

Set for beta release later this month and general release in August, Dynamics AX 2012 will replace aged AX 2009, providing a next-generation, on-premises ERP product aimed at midsize companies with global operations. Upgrades to AX 2012 include prebuilt content for financial, HR and operations management in manufacturing, distribution, public sector, professional services, and retail. The intent is to speed deployment and time to value for organizations in these fields, and in some cases this content can be blended, as when manufacturers run distribution and retail operations.

As it has done with other recent Dynamics application upgrades, Microsoft has infused AX 2012 with role-tailored, Office-like interfaces supported with embedded business intelligence. These showed up in three live AX 2012 demos, including a slick presentation of Crescent, a data visualization environment set for release in the next version of Microsoft SQL Server. Crescent was used to quickly develop dashboards around product sales, customer penetration, geographic sales distribution and several other visualizations simply by dragging and dropping AX data dimensions onto a blank page.

A Samsung Windows Phone 7 was used in a sales-order demo, and an unidentified Windows Tablet (generation and maker unknown) was used in an HR onboarding scenario (though tablets aren't anything Microsoft can crow about).

Kinect showed up in a would-be shop floor demo in which it was suggested (in what seemed like a bit of a stretch) that workers sometimes can't touch keyboards or tablets because they are wearing protective gloves. The executive doing the demo simply waved his hand in the air to rearrange supply chain orders.

Few details were offered on Microsoft's ERP-meets-cloud-computing plans other than the point that it will run on the combination of Windows Azure, SQL Azure, and Office 365, the last of which is expected to debut sometime this year. Kirill Tatarinov, corporate vice president for Microsoft Business Solutions, offered no detail on target dates, quarters, or even years. There was also no indication of which ERP products, which geographic markets, or which deployment approaches might be favored.

The only solid commitment Tatarinov made was that Microsoft's partners would be included in the move, with opportunities for "cloud-enabled" vertical solutions and add-on services delivered through the Microsoft Dynamics Marketplace. That pledge was a nod to Microsoft resellers, integrators and developers -- many of whom have seen profits reduced by Microsoft CRM Online. But it doesn't give would-be customers much to go on against currently available, software-as-a-service ERP alternatives such as NetSuite, SAP Business ByDesign or Workday.

Other apps news from Convergence 2011 included announcements on the general release of Microsoft Dynamics SL 2011, the release of the on-premises version of Dynamics CRM 2011 and word that Dynamics GP 2010 R2 will be generally available on May 1, 2011.

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