The first day of the new year is a good moment to reflect on what 2017 gave us (or didn’t give) in the Dynamics 365 business. Here are the top 3 themes that came to my mind when I looked backed at the last 12 months of news, releases and overall directions coming from Microsoft.
A major theme that emerged this year and found its way into most of the communication coming from Redmond was Business Applications. Those two words on their own of course don’t mean anything very revolutionary, but it’s rather the way in which they were used to broaden the context of Microsoft’s business software beyond just Dynamics that’s of greater significance. If 2016 was the year when CRM and ERP were commercially bundled into Dynamics 365, then in 2017 the scope began to reach further beyond that. At the start of the year the XRM platform was given the Customer Engagement name, with the absolute minimum fanfare allotted for the occasion, so the true focus for product marketing was obviously somewhere else.
Looking around at what specific software products sit alongside Dynamics 365 in the high level MS technology stack illustrations, it’s quite logical that we’re now seeing the “Power Suite” tied into pretty much every commercial narrative around Microsoft’s business cloud. More precisely, the technology grouped under this suite with no official name is very central to the story being told to both business and technical decision makers for one reason: its purpose is to connect the big three MS clouds. Office 365, Dynamics 365 and Azure are all equal beneficiaries from the toolkit that is provided by PowerApps, Flow, Power BI, CDS and their numerous connectors.
On an everyday level it may still not be all that common for the real life CRM solutions to heavily rely on the Power Suite technology, like using MS Flow instead of D365 workflows. Because it was first rolled out as a power user focused set of tools for an individual information worker rather than something you’d deploy across a large organization, the practical as well as perceived maturity of this technology has formed a barrier of sort for full-on adoption. The long term outlook for it does look bright in my opinion, however. There’s only so much that Dynamics 365 as a platform can do on its own (be it the XRM, AX or NAV flavor), but if you can connect it with the outside world of MS and non-MS services without the traditional integration development effort, that opens up the door to a world of possibilities. I’m pretty sure customers will be interested in taking a step through that doorway and having a look around during 2018.
Taking a few steps down from the higher level clouds and diving into the platform formerly known as XRM, 2017 was a busy year. This didn’t really come as a surprise to me, since I had a wonderful opportunity to get a peak at what the product team had planned for this calendar year already in the last MVP Summit in November 2016. My initial reaction to it was “are you guys SERIOUSLY going to push all of this out in the next release?” Well, a clear majority of the planned features and changes was indeed shipped during 2017 eventually, although the naming of V9 as the “July 2017 Update” didn’t turn out to be such a great idea.
There were massive changes introduced to XRM (which I’ll continue to call for what it is), both above and beneath the surface. Rolling out Unified Interface initially to the mobile devices and eventually to every UI is going to change the client side of XRM in ways that are even greater than the previous user experience overhaul in CRM 2013. Opening up the client UI to custom extensions with the Custom Control Framework (CCF) sometime later (hopefully in 2018) is a major step in enabling and encouraging the reuse of configurable UI controls for data visualization. Finally, the App/Plat Separation that has moved the previously built-in application features of Sales, Service etc. into optional solution packages is now turning XRM into the type of generic application platform that it has earlier often been depicted as – in the technical decision maker slide decks from MS, at least.
The combined effect of this transformation which materialized largely in V9 is that XRM should now be a lot more future proof. Having the individual applications as their own packages is a bit like how at one point in the late Windows Phone operating system’s lifecycle the Office apps needed to be separated from the OS, so that they could be serviced and updated without having to ship a new WP build. (Naturally I hope that the fate of D365 will be considerably more glorious than that of WP.) The new UI controls in CCF that now aren’t tied to a single app feature but can rather consume any data coming from XRM database or from external sources via Virtual Entities are bound (pardon the pub) to be more useful in delivering solutions to varying customer needs. Sharing the same client framework across different devices and embedded apps is going to reduce the amount of effort needed to get these solution features in the hands of different user groups.
Sometimes the planned features take a little longer to ship than was originally estimated, which certainly is no surprise to anyone working in the business of software. Other times it turns our that what you initially promised to deliver isn’t actually going to meet the needs of the outside world after all. The delays experienced in getting V9 out to the customers represent the former scenario, while what happened to the Business Edition is an example of the latter.
There’s no denying that with the growth of the platform and all the new cloud services attached to it, Dynamics CRM had grown from humble beginnings to enterprise scale in the recent years. Therefore the idea of labeling the suite as a true enterprise product and building a different lightweight offering for the needs of smaller CRM environments probably made a lot of commercial sense when MS announced the Dynamics 365 branding with the Enterprise and Business licensing plans to the world in WPC 2016. Only the practical problem remained of how to actually mold a new offering out of the big suite – at least without taking several shots at one’s own foot while setting up constraints for customization and expansion for those customers who’d initially start their exercise from the lower end of the license pool.
Those 14 months from announcement to eventual cancellation of a separate Business Edition were filled with confusion on all sides – from partners to customers, and probably within Microsoft, too. Although this did leave an unfortunate stain on the year 2017 for Dynamics 365, the long term outcome from the decision to NOT roll out an artificially separated lower tier may turn out to be a better choice after all. It’s all still wide open on how the promised “lower price point” licenses and apps will be packaged, but at least it sounds to me like MS has acknowledged they need to build bridges instead of walls around the growing set of applications in Dynamics 365. For instance: just take a look at the documentation of the upcoming Dynamics 365 for Marketing application and tell me if it looks like an SMB only -product that no existing (Enterprise) customers would have any use for? Exactly. Sanity must prevail and customers be given a chance to license the technology that best fits their needs.
What can we expect to see from Dynamics 365 in this new year then? There are no definite product roadmaps from Microsoft that would publicly disclose what’s planned for be released in which year, since the software business no longer operates on the type of schedule that we saw when products were shipped in shrink wrap every 2-3 years. It now looks more like a mesh of forever updating cloud applications and web services that move along according to their own backlogs and team velocity. Given that the real business applications that customer organizations deploy are a combination of several products that in turn use a variety of back end services, who can actually tell when a certain feature will be “ready”? For example, Dynamics 365 for Marketing utilizes Customer Insights, which in turn relies on the following Azure services:
- Azure Data Lake Store
- Azure Data Lake Analytics
- Azure HDInsight (Spark, Phoenix, HBase)
- Azure SQL Database
- Azure Key Vault
- Azure Secret Store
- Azure Event Hub
- Azure Stream Analytics
- Azure Redis Cache
- Azure Service Fabric
- Azure Active Directory
- Azure Monitoring
- Azure Metrics
- Azure Websites
- Azure Service Bus
- Azure Storage
That’s what the future is made of, and that’s why it is so unevenly distributed. We may well see MS announce the next Dynamics 365 Customer Engagement capabilities before existing customers are even able to update their instances to V9. The specific points in time where a particular capability is 1) announced, 2) in private preview, 3) in public preview, 4) available for new environments and 5) deployed for live customer environments may therefore be spread out over a time period that makes even assigning a proper year to it challenging at times – let alone a calendar month like “July 2017”. In this light, I’m personally mainly expecting to see how the above three themes from 2017 will play out as they get closer to impacting the real life scenarios of customer organizations all over the globe that get to put it all into action in their digital business processes.