Fresh off the heels of its acquisition by Microsoft, Great Plains is furiously working on new versions of its key accounting software products that will be tightly integrated with the software giant’s Internet strategy, Microsoft. Net.
By the third or fourth quarter of 2002, Great Plains’ Dynamics, E- Enterprise, and Solomon accounting systems will all be linked to a business portal, dubbed the E-Business Desk. The portal will serve as a common user interface for these programs and other business applications at user sites, says Dave Coulombe, the company’s vice president of strategy.
“The E-Business Desk is a corporate portal in a box,” Coulombe says. “It integrates back into all of the existing applications.” In addition, the E-Business Desk will be built upon Microsoft’s corporate intranet server product, the SharePoint Portal Server and its portal framework, the Digital Dashboard.
Dennis Byron, an analyst with the Framingham, Mass.-based market research firm IDC, says the plans for E-Business Desk put Great Plains in a close competition with other suppliers of accounting and enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems. For example, earlier this year, SAP announced it planned to blend its products with Yahoo and build portals for corporate users.
Byron expects enterprise portals to soon become a mandatory prerequisite for any software supplier in the ERP market.
The E-Business Desk portal will let users customize their desktop to match their jobs. In addition, corporate managers can also control the personalization features so that users in certain job classes, such as accounts payable, will have their access limited to only the tasks or functions they need. Employees will also use the portal to enter timesheets, which will then be fed into the payroll system.
The access to specific applications will be seamless, and several functions will be viewed through the portal. For example, an employee planning a business trip will get to a corporate travel agent’s Web site via an HTML link that will look no different than the links that launch other business functions.
In the 12 months to 18 months before the E-Business Desk is available, the pending releases of the Great Plains’ key accounting software products will proceed with the same features that had been planned prior to the acquisition. Great Plains will go ahead with the release in June and July of Solomon 4.5 and a rolling release schedule over the next 12 months of Dynamics 7.0. E-Enterprise, the software company’s entrant into the ERP market, should be upgraded to version 7.0 starting this year’s fourth quarter.
Coulombe says Great Plains has acquired some functions for E- Enterprise that will be part of the upgrade to 7.0. For example, earlier this year, it bought a lockbox processing feature from Professional Advantage, that links an accounts receivable department to a company’s bank receipts. Where Great Plains can’t develop the technology in house, it will continue to purchase it from other software vendors.
Jody Uecker-Rust, Great Plains’ chief operating officer, says E- Enterprise is designed for divisions of large corporations and the upper end of the mid-market, a segment that Great Plains defines as including firms with $100 million to $500 million in revenue.
Although the Great Plains sale to Microsoft closed nearly two months ago, neither company has made a definitive public statement since then regarding any significant change to Great Plains business or product strategy.
Byron Miller, a Chicago-based vice president with the market research firm Giga Information Group, says it may take another four to six months before all the specifics emerge from the merger’s impact on the market.
But so far, the deal appears to have cemented an already close relationship between the two firms. On Thursday, Great Plains announced that its applications all support Microsoft Office XP, the latest upgrade to the company’s applications product, which was formally launched Thursday.
One question that remains is whether Microsoft will let Great Plains management run the business while Microsoft remains in the background and functions primarily as a funding agent for new initiatives, or whether Microsoft will try to aggressively steer Great Plains’ operations. The latter course would “be a mistake,” Miller says.
Uecker-Rust told CFO.com, “There hasn’t been any major shift in strategy.” But she also noted that Microsoft wanted the deal to help it broaden its presence in the mid-tier market, while Great Plains will try to use its new corporate parent as a stepping stone into larger corporate accounts.
In the long run, the entire Great Plains product line should ultimately be merged into the .Net architecture. The FRx financial reporting system Great Plains acquired in March 2000 is also slated for a product upgrade built upon .Net. Finally, in October, the company will make an announcement at its annual meeting for systems integrators and resellers, Stampede, about its strategy to merge its product line with Microsoft’s bCentral Internet service for small businesses.
The bCentral service is best suited for users of Dynamics, which is sold primarily to businesses with less than $50 million in annual revenue, and Solomon, which is sold to companies with annual sales ranging from $25 million to $100 million.