I’ve just returned from the Microsoft tidal wave that is Convergence – the annual Microsoft Dynamics customer conference. I wanted to share some of my observations from the conference while they are fresh, and some thoughts on what these developments may mean for our clients running Dynamics CRM.
As I listened to the Dynamics CRM leadership team’s presentations, four main focus areas for Dynamics CRM’s near future became clear:
- Integration of the MarketingPilot acquisition
The feature set for marketing automation in Dynamics CRM has never been particularly rich; however, great third party options such as ClickDimensions, CoreMotives, and ExactTarget have seamlessly supplemented the out-of-the-box feature set at a reasonable cost, giving Dynamics CRM customers a great tool set for marketing (and more specifically, email marketing). The acquisition of MarketingPilot brings a broad marketing automation package into the Dynamics family, with features that assist users with (a) planning/budgeting for multi-channel marketing campaigns (b) developing and managing marketing assets (c) executing marketing campaigns, and (d) analyzing results.MarketingPilot has undergone a UI refresh to snap to the “Microsoft modern” look for consistency with the new UI work elsewhere in Dynamics. For the time being, it will remain a separate, standalone product, though it will have integration points with Dynamics CRM. It is unclear to me at this point whether Microsoft plans to license MarketingPilot separately; its standalone nature would certainly facilitate this.
MarketingPilot is part of the “Gemini” release, which should be available in the near future. Once the product is actually released, and we get a detailed picture of its features and potential cost, we should be in a position to advise clients whether it represents a better solution for their marketing needs with Dynamics CRM than the third party applications we currently recommend. At this point, we would not recommend that customers with pressing marketing automation needs change their current plans. (We’ll revisit this guidance when we’ve seen MarketingPilot “under fire” in real-world situations and can better assess its performance.)
- Emphasis on social elements of CRM – specifically Yammer integration and the NetBreeze acquisition
The impact of social technologies also received a lot of attention. Microsoft is continuing to press forward with the integration of Yammer (Microsoft’s social media offering for corporate customers) into Dynamics CRM. The new “process” UI (more on that in a moment) includes a Yammer feed centrally located on entity forms. Yammer integration will also be available for on-premises customers as part of the Orion release later this year.The big Dynamics CRM social news at Convergence was the announcement of the acquisition of NetBreeze, a social monitoring company out of Switzerland. Demonstrations of the tool, while high-level, showed an attractive interface that allows marketers to monitor social activity and sentiment on an array of topics, drill down to actual tweets/blog/posts/etc. and to respond as desired. A key differentiator for this product is that the sentiment analysis is performed in the user’s native language, which can yield superior results than products that translate to English when performing sentiment analysis.
I came away very excited about NetBreeze, and I am eager to see how its capabilities will be integrated into Dynamics CRM. My sense is that this will be some ways off – potentially in early 2014, but specifics on dates were not provided.
- User interface overhaul
In the recent Polaris release, we have seen the beginnings of Microsoft’s move to a single-window, process-centric interface that incorporates the “modern” look-and-feel familiar from Microsoft other recent releases (Windows 8, Windows Phone). This first step was indeed a small one – the new forms are available for only a handful of entities, and do not support client scripting of any kind. This last restriction makes them effectively unusable for most Dynamics CRM customers, who rely on client script to streamline the application interface, perform validation, etc.This is also a very exciting development – Dynamics CRM users have for some time bemoaned the frequent pop-up windows in the Dynamics CRM interface – and while Microsoft has made strides here in recent releases, what we saw of the new UI at Convergence is very very promising. Microsoft claims to have a goal of building an application that users will “love to use” – it looks like they are on the right track to me. We’ll need to watch closely to see if they are able to complete the UI makeover as part of Orion (which is the stated goal), and pay careful attention to how form scripting will be managed. (This includes the upgrade path for existing script.)
- Mobile emphasis
Under the “ubiquity” theme, the Microsoft team made clear the importance they put on CRM users being able to access the application across a variety of devices, with an experience that makes the most of each. There are also clear signals that Microsoft has resigned itself to the reality that they cannot dictate how their application is accessed – we see cross-browser support now available as part of Polaris, and the mobile story placed strong emphasis on iPad as a targeted platform, as well as (in the future) Android devices and “other phones” (presumably this includes iPhone?). These are great, important principals that should ensure that Microsoft’s moves in mobility for Dynamics CRM have the maximum impact.The roadmap for mobility, unfortunately, remains overly complex and a bit confusing. The current offering includes Mobile Express, plus a new iPad-specific browser experience for Sales, for CRM Online only. In the Orion timeframe, this same iPad browser client will be available for on-premises customers. Also in the Orion timeframe, a new mobile app (not browser experience) will be available for iPad and Windows8. This new app will also be sales-focused, but will be configurable and extensible. It will also be available for both CRM Online and on-premises customers. Looking past Orion, the Microsoft team discussed mobile experiences for marketing and customers service, for Android devices, and for phones. Clearly Microsoft is prioritizing tablets over phones.
I am frustrated with Microsoft’s slow and somewhat disjointed progress on this front, but I expect that this is due to the fact that Microsoft perceives the mobile client as core to the application, and want to build the application themselves rather than acquire a product (they want to “do it right.” ) Fortunately, in the meantime, there are solid third party options for customers who require them.
Other Convergence observations:
- Dynamics continues to be a growing business for Microsoft – they have marked 34 consecutive quarters of double-digit revenue growth, and have reached the 3,000,000 user and 39,000 customer milestones.
- Despite the rapid development of business intelligence capabilities in SQL Server 2012 and Office, BI and analytics did not get much focus at all from the Dynamics CRM team in the keynotes and other main sessions.
- Lot of new faces in Dynamics CRM leadership, from outside Microsoft – including CVP Bob Stutz, and head of program management Jujhar Singh. It will be interesting to see their impact on the product direction.
In summary – it was a great conference experience, and a great affirmation of Microsoft’s commitment to the Dynamics CRM product. Once completed, the new user interface should have a big impact on ease-of-user and user satisfaction, and the investments in marketing, mobility, and social seem well placed to address weaker areas of the current offering. I’ll be counting the days until the Orion release!