Microsoft releases Dynamics CRM 2011 beta

Microsoft today released a beta of its upcoming customer relationship management (CRM) solution.

Microsoft Dynamics CRM 2011 can now be installed as a beta for evaluation by organizations. The bits can be downloaded here.

Microsoft also rolled out its hosted version of the Dynamics CRM 2011 beta. The beta is being offered worldwide as service from Microsoft's servers, as well as from the servers of Microsoft's partners.

The beta release will expand to include additional languages and markets. Microsoft expects to release the hosted beta version of Dynamics CRM 2011 as a Microsoft service in 40 markets by the end of this year. That release will be available in 41 languages, according to Microsoft's announcement.

In addition, the partner-hosted service and on-premises version of the Dynamics CRM 2011 beta will be available in 40 markets in eight languages. The downloadable beta is currently available in Chinese, English, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese and Spanish.

Usability and Integration Improvements

Microsoft highlighted a few reasons why customers might consider moving from Dynamics CRM 4.0, which is the current flagship product released in 2007.

Dynamics CRM 2011 beta includes user experience improvements, providing the familiar Microsoft Office-like environment, integration with Microsoft Outlook and the Ribbon menu system. The beta release better integrates with SharePoint and Dynamics AX. Lastly, it provides an easier means for Microsoft's partners to build customized solutions, or "add-ons," to address organizational needs.

On that latter point, Microsoft has integrated the Microsoft Dynamics Marketplace into the Dynamics CRM 2011 beta. Essentially, Microsoft has added its Pinpoint partner search technology and made it easier for users to find specific partner-built solutions from within Dynamics CRM 2011, according to Dan Bien, a program manager on the Dynamics CRM product team, as explained in a Microsoft-produced video.

Microsoft plans to roll out a beta version of the Microsoft Dynamics Marketplace "later this month," according to the company's announcement. The marketplace will include "a catalog of more than 700 applications and professional services" that can be searched by customers.

Online CRM Reigns Supreme

Microsoft expects to reach more customers with the online version of Dynamics CRM, according to Rob Helm, an analyst and managing vice president at the Directions on Microsoft consulting firm.

"There's a larger group of businesses that can be reached by a hosted CRM service, and Microsoft is determined to get to them before Salesforce.com," Helm explained via e-mail. "It's relying on partners to reach a lot of them, so it will promote partner add-ons online, and also make it easier for partners to put up their add-ons on the Microsoft-hosted Dynamics CRM Online service."

Microsoft is also providing support for partners working with on-premises installations of Dynamics CRM 2011. Partners can run their add-ons in a "sandbox" to ensure that nothing will break, Helm explained. "However, those benefits will be more important for new customers than existing ones who already have working Dynamics CRM 4.0 installations," he added.

Microsoft also sweetened the profit mix for its Dynamics CRM Online partners, at least for a year, according to a Worldwide Partner Conference report.

Dynamics CRM is currently targeting the marketshare of traditional Siebel in-house CRM deployments as well as giving Salesforce.com a fight in the hosted CRM space, according to R "Ray" Wang, a partner and research analyst for enterprise strategy at Altimeter Group. He noted a few advantages in the new beta release.

"There's better SharePoint integration. There's better integration with some of the unified communications products being rolled out; definitely better integration back to some of the Outlook components," Wang said, in a telephone interview. "And that gives [Microsoft] an advantage, because that's what customers want. Microsoft has a lot of investment in role-tailored experiences and usability experience."

Wang noted another advantage at the platform level. "Microsoft Dynamics CRM is the only product that uses the same code base across -- whether [the customer] wants to deploy on premises or [get it] on demand or have a partner host it. It can move across all three deployment options," Wang said. However, Altimeter Group's research shows that "96 percent to 97 percent of CRM sales are now on-demand," he added.

As for when the installed version of Microsoft Dynamics CRM 2011 might be released by Microsoft, Wang predicted "late January" [2011]. Helm offered a similar prediction.

"I'm expecting Dynamics CRM 2011 to appear as a Microsoft-hosted service before the end of 2010 and before it shows up as an on-premises software product in 2011," he stated. "This [product launch] will be a first for Microsoft, and an important sign that it's really 'all in' on its move to the cloud."

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