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Microsoft/SAP’s Duet: Swinging for the Hills

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Anyone who caught Oracle apps boss John Wookey’s keynote at Open World last month couldn’t help notice that his demo very quickly moved from showcasing a new standalone Fusion applet to a screen that showed the same applet embedded in Outlook.

This was no accident – not that once-a-year conference demos are ever accidents. But the deliberate use of Outlook fused to Fusion was about much more than just showcasing how easy things will one day be for Oracle’s customers.

Outlook was there because the Office suite is not only the newest and most important user interface since the demise of the green screen, Office is also the battlefield for a four-way tug-of-war – pitting Oracle against Microsoft, SAP and IBM, as well as against a combined Microsoft/SAP product called Duet – for the hearts and minds of users tired of learning new screens to run their ERP systems.

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Wookey’s demo was an attempt to remind his audience that Oracle’s own Office credentials – however unheralded – are also there for all to see and use.

The reasons are simple – as simple as the numbers SAP and Microsoft put into their latest press release: over 200,000 Duet licenses sold in the last three months. As simple as the almost unprecedented momentum that these sales are indicative of. And as simple as the almost universal sigh of relief among users worldwide when told of the prospect of running at least part of their ERP functionality out of their now familiar Office desktop environments.

So Oracle, like everyone else, needed to get its foot back into a market trend that the company had actually helped pioneer. Oracle’s Collaboration Suite has supported Outlook since 2002, and support for the Excel spreadsheet goes back even further. Imagine how annoying it must feel to see one of its own prescient ideas turn into a great market-grabbing product – for the competition.

But don’t cry too much for Oracle, even Microsoft is feeling a little chagrined. Duet not only runs a little counter to the interests of several different groups at Microsoft – the Dynamics people don’t like it because it helps SAP, and the platform people don’t like it because it’s not theirs – but it also confuses the message about the forthcoming Office 2007 release and its Office Business Applications.

The OBAs, as they are called, are supposed to be build-your-own applications that take Outlook or Excel or Word functionality and use them to work in and with ERP transactions. And they’re definitely being positioned as one of the better reasons why enterprises should up and upgrade to Office 2007.

But, rather than be clear about the strategy with respect to the ERP back office, the OBA gang recently showed off a new supply chain demo OBA that used neither Dynamics nor SAP as its back-end. You think someone with a little marketing savvy would have seen the chance to either promote Dynamics or take a dig at Duet. Instead, the demo template was “vendor neutral” and therefore just a little confusing as to its real purpose in life. Oh well.

Meanwhile, IBM, which tried to get in on the action last spring with its own Lotus-to-SAP offering, is sort of waffling around the sidelines, waiting (I imagine) for divine inspiration or divine intervention. Or maybe a little of both. Because the idea that Lotus would be as great an ERP interface as Office seems just a little bit too farfetched at this point. Even if IBM, as it promised last spring, will be happy to give most of the solution away for free.

So for now its Duet’s market, and everyone else has to be content with me-too, or wannabe, or coulda-woulda-shoulda. What will be interesting to watch in the coming months is how far Duet – and its wannabes – push the concept of Office-the-ERP-interface. The danger that users will expect to do every possible task in Office is real, if not unrealistic, and it will be incumbent on all concerned to set limits and expectations early and often.

But for now, 200,000 customers and a market full of jealous rivals can’t be wrong. Duet is a big part of the future of enterprise software, and the future has arrived and is here to stay.

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