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Microsoft Unveils Office 'Fourth Pillar'

In an effort to make its Office System more useful in common organizational tasks -- and give partners a stepped up sales pitch -- Microsoft Monday unleashed one last surprise in its vision of what constitutes its new system, with the unveiling of the Microsoft Office Solution Accelerator program.

The program brings Office into the solutions space by focusing on providing packages that will help customers take their existing Microsoft applications and systems and streamline organizational tasks, like implementing compliance with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act or jumpstarting Six Sigma implementations.

Anders Brown, group product manager of the Information Worker New Markets Group at Microsoft, told internetnews.com that Office System -- slated to launch on Oct. 21 -- now consists of four main pillars: programs, servers, services and now solutions.

"An Office Solution Accelerator is really an integrated set of software components, templates and architectural guidance," Brown said.

The idea is to give Microsoft partners the tools to go beyond just integration by helping them provide a complete, end-to-end solution to customers, based around integrating, configuring and customizing Office Solution Accelerators. Through the Accelerator packages, Brown said partners will be able to spend less time integrating Microsoft products and dedicate more time on higher value-add services specific to their expertise.

"The Office Solution Accelerators will allow us to quickly relate customers pains to demonstrable solutions; this capability was always expensive and time-consuming in the past," said Rob O'Dell, National Solutions director for Immedient, a Microsoft Gold Certified Partner specializing in solution deployment and integration. "They enable customers to quickly leverage their investments in the Microsoft platform, while being assured of the best architectural approach and ongoing enhancements in functionality. This will positively impact the top and bottom line for customers."

This isn't the first time Microsoft has ventured into the solutions space with its products (it offers Management Pack Modules, out-of-the-box solutions for its servers and applications), but it is the first time it has done so with Office, Joe Wilcox, Microsoft analyst with Jupiter Research, told internetnews.com. Wilcox said the program synchs with Microsoft's new thinking when it comes to its productivity suite.

"In the past, Microsoft sold Office on the features. What has it got? Now Microsoft is stepping back and trying to sell Office more on what you can do with it," Wilcox said.

"Microsoft is really trying to reinvent Office and shift the focus away from the individual applications toward what businesses can do with the entire package," he said. "So the company has been working on what it calls 'scenarios' around which businesses might use Office. You'll see this same approach adopted with other products, particularly as Microsoft begins to advance its Windows Longhorn platform. The benefit is really for Microsoft's channel partners, probably more than the customer."

Wilcox explained that Microsoft does not have a broad sales force. Instead, it relies on local resellers and system integrators to go out into the field and sell its products.

"The company has every incentive to try to help them do that," he said.

He added, "Microsoft wants to communicate the value of Office 2003. The company wants people to adopt the new product as quickly as possible. These packages are one way to do that."

Brown noted that the company is training its partners to sell the new solutions, and will host 200 partners at its Redmond campus for a training event next week.

"We fully expect partners to trade service offerings around these," Brown said.

Microsoft will begin releasing the first seven accelerators this fall. Brown said the initial packages aim to streamline tasks in areas like finance, operations, sales and human resources. Future efforts will focus on additional packages aimed at information workers in those areas.

Initial packages will include:

  • Office Solution Accelerator for Sarbanes-Oxley, which Microsoft said will help organizations address key compliance needs like business process documentation and distributed certification
  • Office Solution Accelerator for XBRL, aimed at streamlining the financial reporting process through the utilization of Extensible Business Reporting Language , which the company said would allow customers to standardize internal and external financial information management processes, in order to provide increased financial transparency and support for new financial compliance legislation
  • Office Solution Accelerator for Recruiting, designed to help human resources departments integrate recruiting tools
  • Office Solution Accelerator for Proposals, intended to streamline the proposal creation process
  • Office Solution Accelerator for Six Sigma, which seeks to help organizations manage Six Sigma projects
  • Office Solution Accelerator for Business Scorecards, which aims to simplify management of key performance initiatives
  • Office Solution Accelerator for Excel Reporting, which seeks to extend Excel's reporting capabilities for freeform analysis and reporting, streamlining report creation.

"All of them are essentially built on top of the Office System," Brown said. He added, "This is really about listening to customer feedback. They're saying 'hey, we want more ongoing value in-between large releases of Office.'"

Brown said Microsoft will provide guidance on pricing and licensing at a later date.