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NetSuite revamps hosted tools

Latest version of hosted business software claims new dashboards, increased customization and tighter links to Microsoft Office.

Hosted-applications provider NetSuite launched the latest version of its online business automation and customer relationship management tools on Thursday.

Labeled as NetSuite 10.6, the set of enterprise resource planning (ERP) and customer relationship management (CRM) applications promises significant upgrades in areas including browser-based dashboard controls, system customization capabilities and the addition of tighter integration with Microsoft's widely used Office package.

NetSuite, based in San Mateo, Calif., charges its customers a fee to access its applications, which are delivered online via the software as a service model. The company competes with fellow hosted rivals such as Salesforce.com as well as with more-traditional enterprise software makers including SAP and Siebel Systems. Both Siebel and SAP are increasingly moving into the hosted space, however.

Executives at NetSuite identified the addition of more-powerful browser controls as the most significant step forward in the new product. According to Chief Technology Officer Evan Goldberg, NetSuite's move to bring Asynchronous JavaScript and XML () technology into its dashboard, through which people access the software, is something he expects customers to respond to favorably.

"Customers asking for features that make it easier to get information into and out of the system--it always comes down to these same issues with these kinds of business applications," said Goldberg. "We've always felt that a big part of our success is built on leveraging powerful capabilities built into browser technologies, and customers wanted us to have AJAX capabilities in the dashboards."

By adding together JavaScript and XML, two well-known programming tools, along with other technologies, IT developers maintain that AJAX-based applications can help Web sites and Web-based tools such as NetSuite to process user requests faster and more effectively. Using traditional Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) file transfers requires more time to update Web pages.

For instance, NetSuite's AJAX capabilities allow customers to drag and drop various types of data in the system without needing to refresh a Web page to keep those changes.

In expanding the customization aspects of its software, NetSuite said it has made it easier for customers to build and manage their own applications within the system, echoing some of the similar features recently launched by rival Salesforce.com.

Related to integration with Microsoft products, NetSuite said it has improved product ties to the Web query function in the software giant's Excel spreadsheets to improve data transfer and analysis capabilities. The company said it has also increased integration with Microsoft's Outlook e-mail software.

NetSuite's Goldberg said that unlike Salesforce.com, his company is not actively trying to increase its presence in the enterprise customer space, and he indicated that small and medium-size businesses continue to make up the software maker's core audience.

Even with business software behemoths like Siebel and SAP increasingly moving into the hosted-applications space, the executive said his company is still best suited to serve those kinds of customers.

Siebel has already introduced its own hosted CRM offering, and SAP is rumored to be for introduction in the coming months. SAP's integrated applications approach, which mates back-end business technologies like ERP and front office CRM software will likely promise the same benefits as NetSuite's services. However, Goldberg said it will be hard for SAP to replicate the maturity of his company's tools, at least for the time being.

"To the degree to which SAP delivers an integrated solution that ties together front and back office capabilities, we'd agree with that approach," Goldberg said. "But it's not viable to take an offering like SAP's standard products for huge corporations and scale that down into something useful for smaller businesses online; what we're releasing today indicates how critical it is that the applications are easy to use and learn, with a minimal amount of training."