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BackOffice learns to adapt

With a new revision to its server software bundle safely out the door, Microsoft is turning its attention to the next releases of BackOffice, slated to enter testing early next year.

With a new revision to its server software bundle safely out the door, Microsoft (MSFT) is turning its attention to the next releases of BackOffice, slated to enter testing early next year.

Craig Fiebig, a product manager at Microsoft, said the company is mulling a plan to add customization features to the next version of BackOffice so that resellers can adapt the bundle for specific businesses and industries.

The plan is not new--Microsoft product managers talked about a similar plan more than a year ago. But the upcoming versions will be the first to include specific customization tools.

BackOffice 4.0, announced this week, includes sample Intranet applications that guide users through the process of installing BackOffice in configurations customized for workgroup collaboration and Intranet publishing.

In future versions, Microsoft is considering including within BackOffice a scenario setup tool that would let users answer a few questions and install a version of BackOffice customized to their business, Feibig said. "I see us doing more work on that in future versions as a way to set up BackOffice for different businesses or industries," he said.

For instance, Microsoft may use its Site Server package, in combination with other BackOffice components, to form the core of an e-commerce or Web purchasing system.

The customization tools could come in the next version of BackOffice, an interim release labeled 4.5 slated to ship in mid-1998, that will include updated versions of SQL Server and Exchange, sources said.

That release will include SQL Server 7.0, a new version of Exchange code-named Platinum, and will streamline internal communications between applications and make management of applications more integrated.

The BackOffice suite of software currently includes Windows NT Server, the SQL Server database, Exchange Server messaging software, Systems Management Server administration tools, Index Server, Certificate Server, Transaction Server, Message Queue Server, Site Server, SNA Server host connectivity software, and other tools.

Fiebig said many of the future enhancements planned for BackOffice are being driven by Microsoft's Small Business Server, a version of BackOffice tailored to fit organizations of 25 and fewer users. "It's helping us learn how people deploy application, and it will have a tremendous impact on the next version of the standard edition of BackOffice," he said.

The company is also readying a future release of BackOffice, labeled version 5.0, to coincide with the release of Windows NT 5.0, now due either late next year or in 1999, sources said.

As reported last month by CNET's NEWS.COM, the company is stressing the suite as an integrated set of software for intranet settings--a claim that could not be made with past versions of BackOffice.

Since its introduction several years ago, BackOffice has been a "bundle" in the loosest terms. There is little real integration between applications. In a major upgrade slated for next year, Microsoft will use the new Active Directory features of NT 5.0 and the company's OLE DB data access API (application programming interface) to greatly ease user management, resource administration, and data management, sources said.

Fiebig also shed light on the company's plans for the Enterprise versions of BackOffice. Unlike Small Business Server and the standard version of BackOffice, Microsoft will not sell a "shrink-wrapped" bundle containing recently announced Enterprise versions of SQL Server, Exchange Server, and Windows NT.

Instead, the company will allow users to mix and match standard and enterprise components, depending on their license agreement with Microsoft, to fit their business. "To a large extent, licensing agreements have become our delivery mechanism," Fiebig said.