By Jason Gumpert, Editor

Microsoft Dynamics GP SmartList DesignerSmartList Designer | source:

Microsoft has been releasing Dynamics GP ISV solutions from their OEM agreements for well over a year now.  But the recent announcement that it is returning SmartList Builder, one of its biggest licensed add-on solutions, back to eOne Solutions, at the same time that it is introducing a curiously similar tool in SmartList Designer, seems to be getting more people in the GP community talking about whether it means something more than what Microsoft and eOne are letting on.

Let's follow the conversation that's been moving throughout the online community for the last few days and see whether it can shed light on what's going on...

Following Microsoft's announcement last week, eOne got its own messaging revved up with an explanation that SmartList Builder (SLB) is "coming home" and that the company was excited about the opportunity to take full ownership of the product once again.  eOne founder Martin Olsen laid out eight reasons why ending the OEM relationship with Microsoft, after 7 years, was a good thing.  And it's a good list, with some hard-nosed points that capture some of the difficulties one might imagine in doing a licensing deal with a company the size of Microsoft.

Among the reasons Olsen notes for wanting to take back control of SLB:

  • eOne wants to enhance SLB to access non-GP data in SmartLists
  • They want to develop without dependencies on the GP web client
  • Pushing forward a mobile strategy at their own pace
  • Improve interoperability and integration with the rest of the "eOne stack"
  • "Relying on a company as large as Microsoft with inherently complex systems was an ongoing and unnecessary distraction."
  • "Confused Direction:As an OEM partner - we were at times left in the dark when it came to understanding where the Microsoft corporate direction clashed with the local GP team's vision. To ensure we were the masters of our own direction we needed full control over SmartList Builder including development, sales, marketing and promotions."

All good reasons for them to be happy about gaining back control. And Olsen also notes that their control over Extender, which ended its license agreement last year has been smooth, so presumably they know what to expect in this transition.

For Microsoft to give up one of the more popular features of GP may seem odd to some, but to do it nearly in tandem with the introduction of the very similar SmartList Designer in GP 2013 SP2 has caused people to ask some serious questions about what is going on.  Is Designer a competitor to SLB? Is it a replacement? Did eOne and Microsoft have a falling out?

But to Olsen's credit, he expanded even further on the decision to actively take back control of SLB, writing in a thread on the GPUG community forum where users were speculating on the meaning of the decision. He wrote:

"...Across the Dynamics range of products there were many OEM agreements (Across GP, Nav, AX, CRM and others). Some OEM agreements were ragingly successful for Microsoft, like Extender and SmartList Builder.  Other agreements were not successful and were costing Microsoft a great deal of money for little reward. It seemed there were more that fell into the unsuccessful camp. So when looking at OEM's as a whole, Microsoft corporate made a decision, rightly or wrongly,  to steer away from them. (this resulted in many changes across Dynamics but in the GP world impacted Collections, Audit Trails and eXtender).

"For eOne the changes with eXtender at the beginning of 2013 have panned our [sic] extremely well. Sales are up, development is making some awesome improvements, the eOne stack is improving, AEP renewals are strong and partners are building some great solutions. So when our annual revision of the OEM agreements came around this year, eOne decided that the time had come to take back control of SmartList Builder. As described in our recent blog this move makes total development sense, financial sense and will be good for our customers and partners. The eOne stack of products will continue to get better and better."

Olsen described the move as "eOne's decision", and that may be true, but it probably isn't the whole story.  As Mark Polino wrote a few days ago, there seems to be a desire by Microsoft to get rid of older types of OEM deals especially those that were created before the current license model had been created:

"... the popular consensus seems to be that the culprit was Microsoft's licensing model change with Dynamics GP 2013. Essentially everything is being rolled into the new GP 2013 license model. This is a nice change for customers and may help drive the adoption of products like payroll and HR, which used to have separate user count restrictions. The products affected are all believed to have had development and support agreements between Microsoft and the ISV who developed the product. The licensing change meant that there wasn't a way for Microsoft to continue charging extra to support the agreements they had with those ISVs. That's the story that I keep hearing from partners and ISVs that I talk to."

So do ISVs like eOne decide on their own to end OEM agreements? Or does Microsoft blindly start ending OEM agreements, whether they were working or not? Or maybe ISVs like eONe sit down with Microsoft when it's time to renew the agreement and get an offer that is so far below where it used to be that they know it's time to move on.

In a new blog post, Dynamics GP MVP Victoria Yudin said the news made her "wonder what this means for the future of selling and supporting Microsoft Dynamics GP." She explained that she likes that ISVs might gain credibility because a major component of GP is once again sold by a fellow ISV (Yudin's company, Flexible Solutions, makes the GP Reports Viewer), but on the other hand, it raises questions for customers and prospects:

"...are [customers] willing to purchase an ERP system that needs so many additional products from ISVs? Will they start questioning why Microsoft does not make a product robust enough to stand on its own? The devious part of my brain is also wondering if Microsoft is paving the way to create their own products/modules to replace these OEM modules in the future."

And it is most likely that timing with GP 2013 SP2 and the introduction of SmartList Designer, that got more people to sit up and take notice of the SLB announcement.  Why would Microsoft release a product that does many of the things SLB already did?  Nicole Albertson of eOne addressed this question from her company's point of view earlier this week with a length blog post laying out fourteen things that SLB does that Designer does not.  She acknowledged that Designer "does a few things that SLB doesn't, but noted that SLB plans to add much of the same functionality and more.

A couple of other GP implementers have given SmartList Designer a first look recently.  Mahmoud AlSaidi described it as having achieved "considerable progress", but also wondered why Microsoft had to create a new product:

"Many questions still roll up in my mind, aren't there quite duplicated features among the SmartList Builder and SmartList Designer, Why not combine and extend the capabilities of the two in one greatest SmartList Tool !   Further versions might hold the answer."

Mariano Gomez described SmartList Designer as "the biggest improvement/addition to SmartList" in GP 2013 SP2. And he asks the same question as everyone else: How is this tool different from or similar to SmartList Builder? He does note a few strengths and weaknesses in each product, with perhaps more conveniences and streamlined access to Designer and more power tools in SLB. 

On Tuesday, GP product manager Pam Misialek got Microsoft back into the conversation with her post ""Is it a conspiracy? Not, not really".  In it, she echoes largely what Errol Schoenfish told us about a  year ago: that customers are getting more comfortable with ISV add-ons to GP as "apps" and as time goes on they will question even less the idea of adding ISV solutions to their ERP solution.  She goes on to share more about her view of the role of the ISV in the Dynamics GP ecosystem:

"As a community we need to start thinking more forward to provide solutions in new and powerful ways.  Our trust in our community has allowed us to make the hard decision to make a bold change.  In the long term it's the right decision to make that will improve the lives and business success of our partners and customers.  Why?  The power of five is much stronger than Microsoft alone. The five being the partner, the ISV, the customer, Microsoft, and the community.

"The Microsoft Dynamics GP strategy around ISV's remains constant and simple. If an ISV has functionality that is already in market, Microsoft tries not to build it.  We will focus on gaps and new technologies that enable our entire community."

And why did Microsoft rebuild SLB functionality into the core product? Misialek explains:

"We are adding a simple SmartList creator in the base of the product because whether you think it's old technology or not, people use it and people love SmartLists.  In order to sell basic GP we needed to have something simple to create new SmartLists.  SmartList Builder has much more functionality and we have no plans to add more to the core solution."

Misialek's rosy view of the impact of ISV solutions on selling GP is certainly not universal. Partners often lament the fact that they need to coordinate the sales process, licensing, implementation, and maintenance of ISV solutions into so many Dynamics deals. They wish Microsoft would simply acquire more of this functionality once and for all.

Since Microsoft wanted a "SmartList creator", presumably they tried to find a way to keep letting eOne provide it. But it's also easy to imagine Microsoft doing some investigation, figuring out the cost and effort required to create Designer as a minimum viable product, and reaching the conclusion that for the value, they couldn't negotiate a deal that would make eOne happy with any longer.  And the ever-present Martin (Olsen, presumably) added his views on this question as well in responding to Victoria Yudin's post in a comment.  He wrote:

"eOne agrees that when you buy GP out of the box you should be able to add a basic Smartlist for free - and back Microsoft for adding this functionality. SLB was too good to give away for free.

SmartList Builder goes well beyond the designer tool, and Microsoft know that and are comfortable with that. Microsoft remain massive fans of SmartList Builder and will actively assist in marketing and taking this to the GP community."

And as other commenters on Yudin's blog pointed out, it is also likely that Microsoft is looking to start making some basic Dynamics GP-based data lists available through SQL Server Reporting Service (SSRS), though there will be much more work required before it is as easy as building SmartLists.

It's too early to know for sure if SLB will be able to outshine Designer as partners and customers assess their needs. But judging from their response in the last few days, it is clear that eOne intends to prove the worth of their product and continue fighting for every deal.