By Jason Gumpert, Editor

There's no question that the Microsoft Dynamics CRM December 2012 Service Update marks an important milestone for the product, bringing to market important capabilities like cross-browser compatibility, native integrations to more Microsoft products, and a new user interface.   And with the release process now underway with TAP customers and the January start date for deployment to the rest of the CRM Online user base, Microsoft wants partners to know it is time to round out their training on the new release in order to help guide customers through the intricacies of the rollout.

Since the December service update is for Dynamics CRM Online only, the upgrade will have two components - the obligatory software upgrade that all CRM Online customers will get as their various "scale groups" in data centers around the world are upgraded, and the opt-in features that can be deployed if and when a customer is ready to use them.  The obligatory parts include the cross-browser compatibility (minus the iPad browser experience, which is now scheduled for a separate rollout in February) and API changes.  Many of the new features, including Skype and Yammer integration and the Flow UI will be opt-in, meaning customers can decide if and when to enable them after the upgrade.

Deployment of the Flow UI will offer a lot of flexibility in terms of when and how to enabled it, explains Phillip Haase, Dynamics CRM Technical Lead, Microsoft US.  There will be a variety of permutations that users can configure as they see fit.  For example, a customer can deploy the new interface for all the available entities or just one, like updating the UI for opportunities while leaving the "classic" view for accounts.  The ability is there to even switch between interfaces for the same entity, though such an approach could cause confusion with their users if they were to allow a lack of consistency at the entity level, Haase suggests.

And while the new iPad Safari interface is considered part of the new cross-browser story, it will in fact be another opt-in feature because of its reliance on the Flow UI.  Safari on the  iPad will have a separate task-oriented, touch optimized interface for sales, focused on COLA entities (contacts, accounts, opportunities, leads) and designed to avoid pop-ups.

For partners and customers in the TAP program, training and preparation for the December 2012 Service Update is well underway, says Haase.  TAP customers are already using the new features and getting help from both Microsoft support and their partners.  For the rest of the CRM Online user base, partner and customer readiness materials are continuing to populate, much of it derived from the detailed internal documentation that already exists.

Microsoft is now looking to its partners to step into the picture and learn enough about the technical and functional changes in the new release to start guiding customers.  In the US, this readiness includes a series of "Tech Chat" webcasts starting next week on topics including the Flow UI (December 20), Lync, Skype, and cross-browser (January 10), infrastructure (January 17), activity feeds and Yammer (January 24), and iPad functionality (January 31).

The cloud-based upgrade model continues to be an area of focus for Microsoft in engaging with its CRM Online partners and customers.  "Readiness is something we have to work hard on," says Haase. "We're still figuring out this rhythm, as are partners." Releasing new features is  about more than just the sparkle of a fresh demo, Hasse acknowledges. He is leading the US partner readiness effort and he expects partners will position the service update to their clients as a net benefit, taking into account the costs involved in deploying new capabilities.

"[We want] to show the value as the benefit of the enhancements minus the implementation [costs]. Our core value is 'what is something worth, what is the net?'  Not just the cool new feature but the cost of that new feature to help balance the true value of it, then take that value of the feature as a partner and understand what else will be going into delivering it," Haase says.

The US partner team has already run a day long technical training session, as well as more functional training, and the questions from CRM partners so far have been reasonably basic.  With the periodic training schedule into January, Haase expects that partners will be educating themselves on various features in depth and coming back to future sessions with more complex questions and scenarios in mind. 

In addition to planned events, Dynamics CRM partners should be looking on PartnerSource for all the existing CRM Online training, says Haase, including more technical training that can be found by searching for the term "CRM 2012".  And the "CRM Training Blitz", a day-long event with a mix of higher level functional content and technical material,is now available online too.