Dynamics CRM 2013 Finally Revealed

Dynamics CRM 2013 Finally Revealed

There were a couple of announcements made regarding the upcoming version upgrade of Microsoft Dynamics CRM (previously known as “Orion”) during the World Partner Conference 2013 event (WPC13) three weeks ago: 1) it was named as “Microsoft Dynamics CRM 2013 / Microsoft Dynamics CRM Online Fall ’13 (depending on your deployment model) and 2) the client licensing model was unified between Online and on-premises to consist of Professional, Basic and Essential license tiers. The CRM related sessions also presented several interesting facts about where Dynamics CRM is heading (see my WPC13 recaps of Day 1, Day 2 and Day 3 if you missed them), but all in all they were more about the product roadmap rather than detailed features of the next release.

CRM2013_BlitzToday, on July 31st, Microsoft held the Dynamics CRM Training Blitz Day for all its partners. The sessions were split into two tracks, but for most of this blog’s audience I’m sure the track “Technical Overview for Application Consultants, Presales Consultants and Developers” was the preferred choice. The sessions presented by the Redmond allstars Eric Boocock and Girish Raja consisted of the following topics:

  • Reimagined User Experience in Microsoft Dynamics CRM 2013
  • Process Agility in Microsoft Dynamics CRM 2013
  • Microsoft Dynamics CRM 2013 Mobile Client Application
  • Yammer Integration in Microsoft Dynamics CRM 2013
  • Outlook Client and Exchange Sync in Microsoft Dynamics CRM 2013
  • Microsoft Online Portal Administration in Microsoft Dynamics CRM 2013
  • Upgrade Process in Microsoft Dynamics CRM 2013
  • Business Rules with Dynamics CRM
  • Client Extensibility in Microsoft Dynamics CRM 2013
  • Extensibility on the Server and Cloud with Dynamics CRM
  • Microsoft Dynamics CRM as a Platform for Business Apps

If you’re a Microsoft partner and have access to the event site, you really need to schedule some time for going through the recordings and other content available, because this is effectively the “What’s new in Microsoft Dynamics CRM 2013″ training kit that summarizes the new and updated features of the product you’ll be working with from Q4 onwards.

Although this was a partner event, it was declared “free to tweet” and resulted in a wealth of content being shared over on Twitter. I collected the most interesting content related to new features of CRM 2013 onto a Storify post that you can view below, to get a quick overview of what was announced in the Blitz event.

There will surely be more material made available to Dynamics CRM customers shortly, so that they’ll have a better understanding of what it means when they see the update notifications in their existing CRM Online instances. If I’d have to summarize the CRM 2013 release highlights in five bullet points, they would be:

  • The new UI that was previewed in the “public beta” of the Polaris release looks like a worthy successor to the previous forms & ribbons. The impact to user adoption and differentiation from competing CRM products is potentially huge, while the feared breaking changes to existing customizations may not be as big as the initial reaction might have suggested (things will break, of course, but I don’t foresee a catastrophe).
  • Business rules and synchronous workflows are the real killer feature of CRM 2013, since they expand the no-code capabilities of the product immensely. They will surely not cover all the common customization scenarios in the first release, but they point the way towards a declarative future where custom development efforts can be targeted to where they are really needed, meaning system integrations.
  • The mobility story with responsive design and “write once” business logic is far beyond what the “CRM Anywhere” path announced in February 2012 (and later cancelled) would have allowed to achieve.
  • Server side sync is long overdue and many organizations will surely be happy to replace the email router with this solution. Tracking individual items will still require Outlook, though. And while we’re at it, the new UI in Outlook client with its popups and hidden global navigation doesn’t look all that hot, but friends of Outlook and CRM 2011 may disagree with me.
  • Acquisitions of Yammer, Marketing Pilot and NetBreeze will play a significant role in the future of the product, but CRM 2o13 is still very early days for this feature set. It’s loosely coupled services like this which will surely make the most of the rapid release cadence of CRM Online (twice a year), so keep an eye on them.

As with most new things, there’s a great deal of excitement I have towards the CRM 2o13 release based on what I’ve seen, and at the same time a healthy sense of fear on “is it all really going to work”. Lucky for us, we can now seek validation for the excitement and relieve our fears by downloading the beta for Microsoft Dynamics CRM that has been posted on Microsoft Connect today patiently waiting for a public beta to become available (if ever). Yes, the beta link shared by the CRM team previously was apparently not meant to be made available publicly, so you’ll still need wait for a while to get your hands on the latest version of Dynamics CRM.

When will the actual Dynamics CRM 2013 product be released then? Many sources are pointing to The Partner Connections Event starting on October 20th as being the official launch event. Also many CRM Online customers have already received information on their organizations having been scheduled for updates to take place during Q4 2013, so I think it’s safe to assume this to be the time frame for general availability of the next version of Dynamics CRM.

Making Dynamics CRM exclusive again with Windows 8 & Metro

Making Dynamics CRM exclusive again with Windows 8 & Metro

We have less than a month to go until Windows 8 hits RTM (release to maunfacturing). What has been described as the biggest OS renewal since Windows 95 is the current center of attention for each and every division at Redmond, since effectively Microsoft is betting the whole company on Windows 8. How does such a significant shift in the operating system used by 1.3 billion users impact a business application like Microsoft Dynamics CRM that has “only” 2.7 million users worldwide?

The past glory of Outlook

Previously Outlook used to be the premium client for accessing Microsoft Dynamics CRM. While any other CRM application provider was technically able to design a great user experience on a browser client, tapping into the omnipresent Microsoft Outlook (1 billion MS Office users globally) was a much more challenging task for outsiders, since they couldn’t just borrow members of the Outlook product team to help in building a CRM client, like the Dynamics division did with CRM 2011.

One regular tweet the Redmond tweeps like to recycle is that Outlook integration is the most popular add-on for Salesforce.com. I can imagine that for anyone selling a CRM application the question of “how does it work with my Outlook email and calendar” will have been a common encounter. As a result, every significant vendor has developed an Outlook integration. Also, as admitted by Bill Patterson at his WPC 2012 presentation, some customers actually prefer the Outlook clients of competing CRM vendros over what Dynamics CRM offers today. Sure, it may be an add-on, but what’s the big difference at the end of the day?

Another aspect to consider is that CRM inside Outlook is no longer the Holy Grail it once used to be. While I don’t have actual hard evidence to back this claim up, to me it seems obvious that the Outlook client is losing the relevancy it once had as the central hub for all knowledge workers. We no longer process our emails or manage our calendars on only our work PC, instead we do it on mobile phones, tablets, browsers, everywhere. The traditional Outlook application as we know it exists only in one of these environments. Although it remains within the reach of most Dynamics CRM users, it is more about the desktop legacy than showing the way of the future.

Cross-browser vs. Metro

Alongside Outlook, also the Internet Explorer client is losing its past status. The Dynamics CRM browser experience is becoming available on pretty much any Internet capable device, be it a PC or tablet, as the cross-browser support in Dynamics CRM rolls out. It was supposed to be here already, but got put on hold for another 6 months based on a decision Microsoft has made very recently. Regardless of the delay, it is something that cannot be stopped anymore. All the users, be it on IE, Chrome, Safari or Firefox will get the benefits of the new “Refresh” UI in their web client.

The main reason stated for the delayed delivery schedule of cross-browser support has been quality issues related to customizations in existing Dynamics CRM environments. Microsoft representatives have emphasized that they will not release a beta level product for line of business software that’s business critical to many of their customers.

While those are most likely accurate claims, Dennis Michalis (General Manager, Microsoft Dynamics CRM) also brought up in his WPC 2012 session the impact that Windows 8 has had on product development for other Microsoft product lines. Based on his statements, the demands placed on all the product teams for reaching Metro compatibility as close to the Windows 8 RTM date (beginning of August) as possible have probably forced them to re-evaluate their roadmaps and take away resources from the development of non-Metro functionality. In his own words:

“If we didn’t render Dynamcis CRM in the Windows 8 context we’d look foolish.”

Think about the priorities from Microsoft’s perspective: Would you rather make your business applications run seamlessly across PC and non-PC devices, thus making your competitors’ hardware and software more valuable for the user, or would you focus on building something that will run only on Windows machines? Besides, who wouldn’t want to get to selling a CRM app as gorgeous as this ASAP?

With the introduction of Metro apps on Windows 8, it will once again be possible for Microsoft to deliver a premium user experience that is exclusive to the clients running the latest & greatest MS software. Metro CRM will effectively be what the CRM Outlook client used to be a few years ago. This slide from WPC shows how the future Dynamics CRM client portfolio will no longer be Internet Explorer + Outlook, but instead we have the Classic client (browser + Outlook), Core client (Metro) and Companion clients (mobile apps).

In this transformation process the iPad apps are relegated into the “companion” category, whereas Metro apps are considered a part of the “core” experience. We probably won’t be seeing all the Dynamics CRM customization tools in the Metro CRM app anytime soon, but most of the functionality accessed by the average CRM user will very likely be available in the Metro client. Companion apps fill the gap for usage scenarios running on truly mobile devices i.e. smartphones, but the iPad or Android tablet apps Microsoft themselves offer will surely never be allowed to reach the level of functionality available on the Metro UI.

By delaying the availability of Microsoft Dynamics CRM Mobile from Q2 to Q4 the period of time between the Metro CRM app preview (Winter 2012 release = Q1 2013) and the official iPad app availability will have been conveniently minimized. Sure, anyone could acquire the iPad client straight from the manufacturer already today, but in the eyes of industry analysts who don’t pay attention to every detail in the product portfolio of CRM vendors they write articles about, little things like this can make a difference (case in point).

Are you ready to sell the Windows OS?

As we feast our eyes on the sneak peaks to a world where Dynamics CRM data is available literally at our fingertips, sliding away smoothly on the Metro canvas, it’s easy to forget what it will actually require for customers to gain access to a system like this. Metro apps will not run on anything but machines with Windows 8 OS. Also, they will not feel all that special unless you have some form of touch based input available in your hardware.

The Microsoft stack must be a faimilar concept to any IT professional. As an example, a customer doesn’t just buy Dynamics CRM from Microsoft, they buy the OS for the server & client, SQL Server for the database, Office for the end user information processing tools + optionally SharePoint, Exchange & Lync. Similarly, the Dynamics partners don’t only sell Dynamics CRM, Dynamics NAV etc. but also the surrounding stack. While in the past the OS hasn’t been a huge focus for Dynamics VAR’s, soon many of them will be selling Windows 8, indirectly. This is because if the customer doesn’t have the modern client software & hardware at their disposal, then you’ll need to fall back into the classic client in your CRM presales demo. Just imagine how crushing that will be once you’ve had a taste of Metro.

But there’s more to it then just flashy CRM demos obviously. Microsoft needs Metro to succeed in the enterprise. It may not need it immediately, though, and could therefore be prepared to not see a bigger uptake until Windows 9 comes around. Nevertheless, in order to have any chance of convincing companies to move beyond Windows 7 they’ve spent a lot of time and money migrating to not too long ago, Microsoft is in desperate need of Metro apps for the enterprise user. It’s not too difficult to convince developers to build simple Twitter clients and other small apps for Metro. The consumer can probably migrate to a Metro world pretty quickly, just like they’ve embraced the iPad. The enterprise scenario is a lot more complicated: No enterprise Metro apps -> users stuck with desktop apps -> Windows 8 only makes the life of IT department more difficult -> no sale.

The previous versions of Windows were sold to the enterprise as an operating system that meets the core needs placed on an OS. Windows 8 and its successors will be sold as the platform that runs the apps that your users need, with the user experience that they want. It’s no longer how you sold the enterprise BlackBerries, it’s increasingly how the enterprise was made to adopt iPhones. From the bottom up, through CoIT strategies (consumerization of IT). Cheap upgrade offers and shiny new slate devices targeted for the Xmas shopping season will not get the enterprises to adopt Windows 8, but they may get a few key influencers to go BYOD with Microsoft software and hardware (unlike the BYOM we’ve seen so far, i.e. Bring Your Own Mac) and put some pressure on their IT departments.

The same applies to Microsoft Dynamics partners. If the Salesforce.com sales reps go meet the potential customer with an iPad 3 in their hands, what Microsoft needs to get into the hands of its partners is the Surface. Long before the Dynamics CRM users will adopt it in any significant numbers. As the saying goes, the future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed. Even if Windows 8 would become an instant success in the consumer space, this will likely remain the reality for the Dynamics CRM customer base for quite some time.

Dynamics CRM Fall 2012 “Refresh” UI first impressions

Dynamics CRM Fall 2012 “Refresh” UI first impressions

Last year the Microsoft Word Partner Conference gave us a first look at the Activity Feeds solution and other R7 feature enhancements. This year in WPC 2012 we got a taste of things to come in Dynamics CRM on not just one but two client UI’s. Although the Metro CRM app is surely a more significant step in the long run, the updated browser UI will initially have an impact on a much wider user base. That’s why I decided to blog about these news first before jumping into the world of Windows 8.

The screenshots in this post are taken from the recording of the WPC session titled Microsoft Dynamics CRM — Now and in the Future, in which Bill Patterson presented the future roadmap of Dynamics CRM. We’ll be getting an updated Release Preview Guide soon which hopefully goes into more detail about the changes and new features, so consider this just a sneak peak into what’s coming in the next Dynamics CRM update.

After the R8 / Q2 2012 release contents on the browser front were rescheduled, we’ll now be getting visible changes also on the Internet Explorer user experience in the Fall 2012 release (in practice the Q4 2012 Service Update). The new “Refresh” UI will take the classic browser experience closer to the Metro look & feel, but it is not the same thing as the Metro app. Point & click mouse interaction is still the focus here, although with cross-browser support you will at least theoretically be able to run this on a tablet with a touch UI.

The changes in the main screen of Dynamics CRM browser client do not appear to be functionally significant, rather just small tweaks in the colors, fonts and other details. We’re moving from the Vista style Aero UI into a simplified, flat Metro UI, which will be visible in all Microsoft products very shortly.

The entity form windows will experience a much more significant update. Please note that one of the focus areas in the Dynamics CRM roadmap for Fall 2012 is developing the application functionality specifically for opportunity and case management, so I expect these changes will not initially impact all the entities. The demo at WPC covered lead and opportunity forms, below is a screenshot of how the lead form appears in the “Refresh” UI:

Wow! We’ve come a long way from the CRM 2011 UI. Where should we start with going through the changes?

Let’s take the ribbon first, or more specifically the lack of it. Although the main window of CRM will still present the full application ribbon, at least on the lead & opportunity forms the ribbon will be minimized by default. Clicking the “More” button will presumably reveal the ribbon, but we didn’t see this in the demo, because the intention of Microsoft is to hide it away as much as possible.

“Hey, didn’t we just get the ribbon 1.5 years ago?” Yes, we did, but it doesn’t fit with the Metro design principles anymore, which state: only deliver the right information to the user at the right time, don’t overwhelm them. Touch UI on tablets and phones makes this even more important, which is quite easy to understand. For the power users (most of the readers of this blog, I’d imagine), the wealth of functionality presented on the ribbon must have felt like a welcome addition back in Office 2007 or CRM 2011, but this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right design choice for a CRM application. Results of the usability research Microsoft has conducted can be summarized in the following quote from Patterson:

“Ribbon is great for the power user, but the everyday user just wants the file menu back.”

Well, that’s it then. RIP ribbon 2011-2012, it was nice to know you. While the reality may not be quite as black & white, anyone designing solutions on top of the XRM platform should definitely take the inevitable fate of the ribbon into consideration.

If we don’t have the ribbon there to guide the user anymore, then what can we use instead? The answer is: processes. What is called the Process Driven UI in the development roadmap will in practice manifest itself as a graphical, interactive process stage indicator on the top section of the entity form.

According to Patterson, the new UI is built on the Dialog Process foundation established in the original CRM 2011 release. Presumably the arrow titles will then come from process stage names. Each stage can contain multiple steps that the user needs to complete (although they don’t appear to be mandatory, at least in the lead qualification demo). Logically these would then be created with the Prompt and Response pairs available in current dialogs. The user can progress from one stage to another manually by clicking arrows on the far right corner of the process graph, but presumably there will also be support for creating conditions for automatic rules to update the stage of a record.

Without knowing much about the features and initial limitations yet, the Process Driven UI looks like an excellent addition to the Dynamics CRM application. Workflow and dialog processes have so far been almost invisible to the user, which has made CRM look like just a static place for entering, reading and updating fields on a form. By bringing the process thinking into the foreground, the barrier for using CRM to really automate business processes will become significantly lower, which in turn can make the application a much more valuable tool for the organization using it.

Moving on with the UI review, into the main form sections, we can see another welcome addition: the built-in follow-up activity functionality is back! When the form assistant was deprecated in CRM 2011 we lost the ability to quickly create follow-up actions from the previous activity form (unless you built a custom process for this, as I’m sure many organizations have), but now it returns into the  core Dynamics CRM application.

These follow-ups, like any other related record presented on the form, are fully editable directly on the parent entity form instead of a separate pop-up window, which has been a paint point that Microsoft is working hard on trying to eliminate. Modern web apps don’t have popups and modern devices (tablets and smartphones) don’t support them, so inline editing is the only sensible way going forward.

Notice how the traditional form fields of a lead are all stacked up on the left side. With the related entities navigation collapsed by default, this single column approach actually looks pretty good. Must be because the iPad and Metro apps are teaching us that fields don’t exist side by side but on top of each other. But what do you then fill the rest of the screen with?

The answer: related records. In the opportunity form example there are subgrids of stakeholders (Connections), Competitors and pursuit team (possibly new team management related entity, or just a Connection type?), although they barely look like subgrids at all since the Metro style form design blends these seamlessly into the entity form. In the middle there’s a combined list that shows Activity Feed Posts, Activities or Notes, depending on the selected tab. Another design choice that sure feels better than spreading these records into a wall web resource, subgrid and a notes/attachments list as they are in the current CRM 2011 UI.

Also pay attention to the top right corner of the form, where there is a highlighted section of entity fields, in this case the opportunity probability, rating, estimated close date and estimated revenue. Whether these are business required or business recommended fields that get automatically promoted into this section of the UI remains to be seen. It’s like a form header section that is actually editable, which could be another possible implementation method. As you may or may not have noticed yet, the header and footer section of the lead and opportunity forms are now history, with no apparent way of bringing them back, unlike the ribbon with the “More” menu.

All in all, what the WPC 2012 demo showed us is almost like a whole new application. The way in which the lead-to-opportunity process now flows within the same window, without a single pop-up window is nothing short of revolutionary, if you compare it to the current Dynamics CRM UI logic. The navigation paths in the application have remained fairly static from v3.0 to 2011, with the latest major version adding a large amount of new UI components (ribbons, charts, subgrids, filters) into the mixture but not really changing the core concepts. Now with the Fall 2012 browser client update and the Metro CRM app looming in the horizon, all of a sudden the  Dynamics CRM user experience is about to get redesigned in a major way.