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Microsoft begins testing new CRM program

Redmond's latest customer relationship management program is being made available as a public beta, with the final version of CRM 2011 planned for around the end of the year.

Among the features in the new version of CRM is an enhanced ability to get dashboards and other reports from with in the customer relationship management tool. Microsoft

Microsoft said on Thursday that it is ready with a public beta of the next version of its CRM software, a program for midsize businesses to track their clients.

Microsoft Dynamics CRM 2011, as the program is known, can be purchased either as server software or as a hosted service. The current version CRM 4, is available in hosted form from Microsoft only in the U.S. and Canada. With the new release, which is due in final form by the end of the year, Microsoft is expanding the hosted option to more than 40 countries.

In an interview this week, Microsoft Vice President Michael Park said that the new CRM version is designed to add new reporting capabilities and is designed to work better with and more closely resemble Outlook.

Park declined to predict how many more customers this time will opt for the hosted product as opposed to the version customers run on their own servers.

"It's hard to tell, and to be honest I don't care as long as the customer is taking it," Park said.

Microsoft faces steep competition in the CRM space from traditional companies like Oracle as well as online-only rival

Both Salesforce and Microsoft also compete in the effort to offer tools that developers can use to write their own online software. Salesforce has its effort, while Microsoft has several options including its Windows Azure cloud-based operating system. Microsoft also allows developers to build customized applications on top of the CRM product. With CRM 2011, Microsoft plans to offer an online marketplace to highlight such add-ons. Initially customers will be able to find and try such products, though Microsoft hopes to add the ability to sell others products via the marketplace.

"That's about a year out," Park said. "I'd say in our fiscal year 2012 that will come." (Microsoft's fiscal 2012 runs from July 2011-June 2012.)

As for the beta version, Park said that the company is hoping it will give a chance for lots of customers to try it out.

"We'd like to hit thousands, tens of thousands," he said.