Recently, I found myself looking in the Google Play Store for a mobile app to solve some issue. I found several options that were close, but none met my need perfectly. My choices were: a) continue to live with an unmet need, b) Use one of the apps that was close… but not really, or c) Hire a mobile app developer and build one, which would be insane. The challenges for Business Applications have been similar up to now, but that is changing.
The Current Landscape
If you are a business in need of a Business Application, which, as a business, sounds like an application you might want, you have a few paths. Before I go further, let’s level-set on what I am referring to by “Business Applications”. In today’s terms, Business Applications include things like your CRM system, ERP system (for finance), Project Management System, Business Operations Systems, etc. These are distinct from other utility applications your business also needs, like Email, word-processing, etc. Business Applications are really the foundation of a business. For any business, imagine what a mess you would have without your accounting software, for example. While many people still use things like Email as a Business Solution, at some point of growth, that flywheel simply gets to big to effectively turn with that AAA Battery. This is when you would consider the power-plant known as Business Applications.
Let’s set aside for the moment what your actual requirements are, and I know we can’t set them aside, but it will only be for a minute, so I think we’ll be okay. Your options, regardless of your specific requirements, will fall into four buckets. Purpose-Built Industry Solutions (Acme Law Software), Broad Solutions (Like Quickbooks or Nimble), Solution Platforms (Like Dynamics 365 or Salesforce.com), or Custom Development. Let’s continue to leave your requirements aside for now, and dump these four buckets over for a closer look.
So like one of those dating reality shows, we’ll go ahead and eliminate one option right off the bat: Custom Development. Custom development is for the people who build these buckets, as a customer you have no business, or budget for building anything from scratch. Even the US Government has moved from pure Custom Development, to Extending Off-the-Shelf software and platforms. So that was easy, let’s take a look at the Broad Solutions.
Broad Solutions are a typical next step from Email and Spreadsheets alone… they are a toe in the Business Solutions water. They are typically designed for the widest possible customer segment, to fill a fairly narrow requirement. We see many customers who, over time, have cobbled together complete business solutions using multiple broad solutions. They will turn a bigger flywheel than Email alone, so we’ll think of them as having 12 AA Batteries. Depending on how fast you are growing, and how much patience you have for maintaining a House of Cards, Broad Solutions could last you for quite some time. So we won’t eliminate this Bachelor yet, we’ll just say his prospects for long-term relationship material look dim.
The next bucket is “Purpose-Built Industry Solutions”, and without even knowing what your industry is, I can safely say, there is a least one for your industry. These “Industry-In-A-Box” type solutions, really blew up in the prior two decades. Before to the cloud revolution, many of these pricey solutions were cash cows for the bucket owners. But with the current speed of change, most of these have suffered from their inability to keep up with what everybody expects today, like web and mobile access, or analytics, for example. They also suffered from “Here’s How it Works Syndrome”, essentially dictating a fixed process for everyone in their Industry, with little wiggle room.
Salesforce.com changed everything, by launching a cloud based “solution” platform that could be customized to meet your needs. It remains the highest selling Business Application, dwarfing all other “Industry-In-A-Box” solutions combined. Microsoft also joined the “Customizable Cloud Solutions” fray with Dynamics 365, and between them, suddenly the idea that you have to conform your business to your software became a silly notion.
Both Salesforce.com and Microsoft Dynamics 365 offer what might be considered on the surface as “Industry in a Box” solutions, but without a specific industry focus. They both have pre-built finished applications… but the similarity ends there. These finished applications are completely customizable to meet any requirements you may have. Granted, you have to know what you are doing, or engage a partner, but the cost of customizing on top of these platforms, is a fraction of the cost of Pure Custom Development, to get exactly what you want. This… has been the huge shift over the last decade.
Well, what’s next for Dynamics 365, is recently catching up with another option Salesforce.com has offered for years, plus adding a bunch of new things Salesforce.com can’t touch. First, catching up with the availability of a “Platform Only” license. I have written quite a bit about this exciting door that Microsoft has opened, primarily from an ISV standpoint, but this will be huge for customers as well. While the first-party apps are awesome, and extending them to be whatever you want, should not break the bank, there are some scenarios where they may not be the best starting point.
While being customizable, the first-party apps make a lot of assumptions in their default deployment about how your business should run. Sales, for example, assumes a fairly specific path of Lead-to-Opportunity, Quote-to-Order, Order-to-Invoice, etc. This includes Views, Forms and Business Processes to match. Many businesses operate that way, and many others can customize this functionality to fit their needs. But what about a business that does not operate that way… at all… not even close? In those cases, it may make more sense to start with a Platform License and build exactly what you want. Obviously there is a step of weighing that needs to be considered. Weighing the cost of customizing the first-party app(s) vs. the cost of building your own app(s) on a naked platform. You would also have to take into consideration the difference in the recurring cost of the subscription licenses over time. But for some, it is an interesting new door.
While much of what I described above could be said for other platforms, there are a couple of significant things that are uniquely Microsoft, that I want to point out. The combination of Office 365 + Dynamics 365 + Power Platform + Azure is something that only Microsoft can deliver on. Charles Lamanna, GM of the Platform, helped me crystallize two truly unique scenarios:
- Deep Office 365 integration across transactional experiences (e.g. Outlook add-in) as well as intelligent experiences (e.g. Relationship Insights / AI).
- Deep Azure integration, to enable a “power-to-pro” experience for customers. That is, they can start by configuring Business Apps, then customizing them with PowerApps, and then jumping into Azure using Visual Studio, Xamarin or VS Code, to develop against them as needed.
So about those requirements of yours that I set aside a while back; as you can see, it really doesn’t matter. Obviously Microsoft can meet your Business requirements, whatever they may be. But comparing your your list of requirements today, to your list of requirements from 3 years ago will reveal a lot of differences. I think it is fair to say that your requirements will continue to evolve over time. So the bigger question is, who will also meet your unknown future requirements? I’m betting on Microsoft.