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Microsoft could fill a much-needed gap

Company denies attack but SAP and Oracle might have to watch out.

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The launch of the first Microsoft-native release of Navision amused me no end.

Many moons ago, I was a Navision customer. As IT and telecoms manager for the London arm of an American company, I worked with the finance division of the organisation as they looked around the market place for a new finance system. It was, in fact, a breath of fresh air that (a) the finance people themselves did most of the work rather than leaving me to talk to vendors and bluff an understanding of the issues; and (b) they asked me to stick my oar in on the technical side instead of simply chucking a shrink-wrapped package at me at the end of the process and saying: "Go install that".

What surprised us all when we started looking was that there was a yawning chasm in the market between traditional finance packages and the (then relatively new and trendy) high-end ERP systems. Although we could have got away with one of the "obvious" choices (Sage's top-end product is the one that I recall as being at the top of this particular list) our wish-list was longer than the feature list of this type of package, and so we went on the hunt for something that was a lot more like a fully-featured ERP/business integration suite but wasn't all that much more expensive.

No surprises, then, that we had a brief foray into the likes of Oracle Financials and SAP before deciding that, given the price hike you experience when moving into these realms, we couldn't justify the "nice to have" items on the list.

Being a thorough sort of chap, though, the FD somehow came across Navision. At that time a Danish company that nobody in the office had ever heard of, they had a super system which was precisely the kind of finance-system-on-steroids we were looking for. Not only this, but it could be almost infinitely customised, and if I recall correctly it had a surprisingly modest hardware requirement (we stuck the server bit on a Compaq ProLiant with a 233MHz Pentium-II processor, NT 4.0 and a non-scary amount of RAM, and the performance graph never really became a worry, even at month-end time).

Navision was, to use a technical term, the absolute mutt's nuts. It worked just great, although I have to say that the reseller (whose programmer did the customisation for us) was extremely competent and determined to make our installation work like it should. I don't think I ever heard any major gripes, and along with doing the day-to-day financial stuff, we used it for a bunch of extra functionality such as asset tracking and the like. There was a whole bunch of stuff that it did well: the way it handled our fixed-asset register, for example, meant it scored highly over more illustrious competitors.

So what's this got to do with Microsoft? Well, their stated aim, according to the news story, is that "it is not setting its sights on the enterprise market dominated by the likes of SAP and Oracle". So just where is it setting its sights?

As a former Navision user, I reckon the answer comes from putting the "cynic" hat on when reading this statement. Given its relatively anonymity, until Microsoft came along a couple of years ago, it's likely that Navision has missed out on a bunch of customers simply because it was the best product but the punters didn't come across it.

Who are these customers?

Well, some of them are the high-end users of products from the likes of Sage – those with high-end financial systems who have always wanted to go a bit further but didn't know of a reasonably priced product that would let them do so.

The other bunch of customers must, however, have taken the other path: that is, they've needed Navision but have ended up going for something more expensive because they decided they couldn't live without the extra features. Let's face it: although not in the price-tag stratosphere of some of the ERP systems, Navision has never been a bargain basement product and so it's likely that many of its potential customers have been able to afford the more expensive offerings – albeit with an air of reluctance on the part of the poor sod signing the cheque.

So Microsoft may say it's not "setting their sights" on the SAP/Oracle market, but only because it doesn't think it has to. As is often the way, the market will come to Microsoft - and that must be a worry for the likes of SAP.


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