NetWorld+Interop - Microsoft Project aims at the enterprise

Microsoft's Project, long known as essentially a desktop productivity tool, will make its debut next month as a full-fledged corporate project and resource management product suite, the company announced Tuesday at the NetWorld+Interop show in Las Vegas.

The new Project family of products, first discussed by the company late last year and detailed this week at N+I, now sports a look and feel consistent with Microsoft's Office XP product suite. But more important for corporate executives, it incorporates new, centralized resource allocation and monitoring functions designed to allow management of a whole portfolio of projects, according to Product Manager Charles Zaragoza.

Project now also incorporates XML (Extensible Markup Language) and SOAP ( Simple Object Application Protocol) functions, which bring the project-management application into Microsoft's .Net plan for the integration of products and applications over the Internet.

"Project has grown up and is ready for the enterprise," said Zaragoza.

Up to now, the company has sold only one version of the product. Available next month in the U.S. and various regions around the world, the new product family will include: Microsoft Project Standard 2002, with an estimated retail price in the U.S. of $599; Project Professional 2002, priced at $999; and Microsoft Project Server 2002, priced at US$1,499 including five Microsoft Project Server Client Access Licenses (CALs). Additional Project Server CALs are priced at $179 each.

Office XP capabilities have been brought into both the Standard and Professional versions. The product now offers, for example, adaptive menus, which expand and offer more details when a cursor is placed over them, and smart tags, which prompts users with ideas for using related functions as they alter project parameters, according to Zaragoza.

Integration with Office products has been enhanced with, among other things, streamlined data transfer with the Excel spreadsheet, he said. The help system has been revamped with a new Project Guide that offers Wizards that step users through setting up various project management features.

With the release of Project Professional and Project Server, however, Microsoft is making a major step toward offering corporate managers a way to bring project and personnel data into a central repository, and collaborate on allocating resources across diverse projects.

"We hit the enterprise functionality hard with this release," Zaragoza said. In Project 2000, the company "dipped its toes" into enterprise collaboration, with the release of Project Central, a Web-based companion product that allows team members to enter information about their own tasks into an overall plan and track projects. But Project professional, coupled with Project Server, goes beyond these capabilities.

A variety of project managers, each using Project, can store data on Project Server, which works with Microsoft SQL Server (purchased separately) and taps SQL (Structured Query Language) analysis and reporting functions, according to Zaragoza. Executives, equipped with Project Server CALs (as opposed to the actual application) use a Web browser to monitor data in the Project Server.

Executives, via Web access, can then use the new Portfolio Analyzer as a sort of resource control dashboard. The analyzer can be set up with user-defined criteria, and can be used to check on the status of various projects. Using modeling functions, executives can, for example, do what-if analysis if they see that a project is falling behind schedule and may have to draw on resources from other project teams.

Data can be imported -- via XML functions for example -- from legacy human-resources applications, and used to build project teams, Zaragoza said. Automated tools allow project managers to build teams based on available personnel and resources.

Project managers can also use the data captured in the Project Server to help guide them in using the software's new enterprise project templates, Zaragoza said. The templates can be used to kick-start project planning, rather than starting new project plans from scratch.

The new Project suite can be seen as a key to Microsoft's plans to build up a family of enterprise resource management (ERP) products, according to Dennis Byron, vice president of the Enterprise Applications Research Department at market-research company IDC, in Framingham, Massachusetts. IDC is owned by International Data Group Inc., the IDG News Service's parent company.

"Microsoft is increasingly competing with the ERP players; this (new Project) is just another logical rounding out of the product line, it helps get them into the PSA (professional services automation) market as well, since you can use it to do asset maintenance across the enterprise," he said.

Microsoft will increasingly offer an integrated suite of business resource planning tools, especially as it develops software acquired last year of business application vendor Great Pains Software Inc., Byron noted. The company's planned acquisition of Navision A/S, which had been rumored and was confirmed Tuesday, also fits into Microsoft's plans to build a portfolio of ERP products, he said.

Byron agreed with other analysts, however, that Microsoft is not expected to compete head-to-head with high-end ERP and project management tools. "Microsoft will be competing in the mid-tier," Byron said.

Long-time users of Primavera Systems Inc.'s namesake software, for example, who manage complex construction and engineering projects that are months or years long, and tap hundreds or thousands of workers and sub-projects, are unlikely to switch to Project.

"It appears that Microsoft is heading in the right direction, but Primavera will still have a strong position on the high end; high-end users need those kind of features, that let you break tasks down into many different subtasks," said Ed Yourdon, a project-management consultant and chairman of Cutter Consortium in Arlington, Massachusetts.

However, Microsoft is working with a variety of vendors and consultants to offer corporations help in building mission-critical enterprise planning applications. Some of these vendors include ERP developers.

The list of companies that will work with Project to help companies build planning applications include, according to Microsoft, Siebel Systems Inc., PeopleSoft Inc. KPMG Consulting Inc., Rational Software Corp., and Business Engine Software Corp. Business Engine will incorporate Project into its own software, and similar initiatives will be announced later in the year, the company said.

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