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Microsoft Helps Developers Take Duet-Style OBAs Beyond SAP

Microsoft's release last week of its Office Business Applications Reference Application Pack (OBA RAP) for Supply Chain Management is the first in a series of technical resources. OBAs are designed to help guide the development of what Redmond calls "a new breed of applications" that use Office 2007 as a platform.

 The OBA RAP shows developers how to build an Office-based repository of assets to enable application composition at multiple levels (UI, middle-tier biz logic, backend data stores). It includes an OBA reference application for a supply-chain-management scenario, a white paper outlining details of the reference solution, downloadable screen-capture demos to illustrate the end user experience and other resources.   

According to Microsoft, OBAs "bridge the gap between the way business-process systems work and the way people work." In other words, they address the disconnect between the structured and unstructured worlds within the enterprise, explained Tim O'Brien, Microsoft's director of platform strategy.

"You've got these big systems automating structured processes in the backend," O'Brien said, "and you've got a lot of 'business practice' on the front end -- all that ad hoc, unstructured collaborative stuff. For example, if your ERP system automates order entry, that order came to be through a series of phone conversations and e-mails with the customer to figure out what the price and contract terms were going to be. None of that stuff is captured or automated in that backend system."

OBAs focus on such unstructured, collaborative processes as e-mail, spreadsheets and voice mail that have a direct impact on overall business performance. These kinds of applications extend the Microsoft Office client and SharePoint Web parts into business processes running in line-of-business apps, such as ERP, CRM and SCM. 

Essentially, the OBA RAP extends the capabilities of the very successful Duet product partnership between Microsoft and SAP to other backend systems. The Duet OBA, announced in May, links SAP's accounting, human resources and inventory systems to a Microsoft Outlook front end.

"Duet was a watershed event in enterprise software," said Josh Greenbaum, principal analyst at Enterprise Applications Consulting. "It's somewhat ironic, because, at the time, Microsoft really didn't recognize the value of what they were putting on the table. As soon as they saw how popular Duet was, they accelerated their own plans to capture that same type of user experience for a broader range of back-office systems." 

OBAs build on Microsoft's "Connected Systems" proposition and the work that Microsoft has done internally under the code-name Elixir, said analyst Neil Macehiter, research director at Macehiter Ward-Dutton. "With OBAs, Microsoft is following its tried-and-tested strategy of enabling application developers, through a combination of education, guidance, technical resources, and tooling, to extend the value of the platform -- in this case, Office -- and address horizontal and vertical market/geography-specific requirements," he said.

OBAs are likely to appeal primarily to the independent software vendor and systems integrator communities, Macehiter says, because they enable those developers to increase the value of their solutions by offering Office as an alternative interface, which extends their opportunities to sell additional services to their customers. "It seems to me unlikely that many enterprises will be able to justify the investment to provide their employees with an alternative interface," he said. "Rather it will come as part of a solution they procure or as part of a solution deployed by a [systems integrator]." 

From a competitive perspective, Macehiter added, OBAs should enable Microsoft to further differentiate from Office productivity alternatives -- Open Office, IBM's Workplace and the growing number of online productivity suites being offered by companies such as Google and Zoho.

Perhaps more important, observed Greenbaum, the decision to make the OBA RAP "ERP agnostic" could help Microsoft hang on to customers it might lose to those alternative productivity suites. "It's a classic Microsoft move," he says. "Microsoft is saying, If we can't own the ERP system, we want to own the desktop experience. With 450 million Office users, it's a great way for Microsoft to stem the tide of users moving to open source and a pure Web experience." 

OBA RAP for Supply Chain is available for download today at the MSDN site. For more information on OBAs, see this Microsoft site.

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance author and journalist based in Silicon Valley. His latest book is The Everything Guide to Social Media. Follow John on Twitter, read his blog on ADTmag.com, check out his author page on Amazon, or e-mail him at john@watersworks.com.