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Microsoft shares tools for unlocking customer data

Releases sample code from Project Elixir, an effort to give salespeople access to customer systems via Office 2003.

Microsoft has released free software code that lets its workers pull sales data into Outlook from customer information systems made by Siebel Systems, an internal project it hopes will inspire other businesses to build similar programs.

The software giant first discussed Project Elixir last January, in an effort to demonstrate how companies can use Web-based tools in Office 2003 to tie Outlook to other business systems from Siebel, SAP, Oracle and others. Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates talked it up again a few weeks later.

Now, nearly a year later, Microsoft has released Project Elixir sample code and technical documentation to the public via its Microsoft Developer Network Web site.

A key component of the project is Customer Explorer, a program the company spent nine months and $500,000 to develop, according to a posting on a Microsoft Web site. The posting said the total was "a small price" to pay to maximize the return on its multimillion-dollar investment in Siebel. The desktop application lets 8,000 salespeople at Microsoft tap into the company's Siebel database via Outlook, the site said.

"Field sales personnel now can manage customer data with the same tool that they use to communicate with customers," the posting said. That should help those agents spend less time in the office and more time with customers, make it easier for them to collaborate with others, and improve the quality and quantity of data in the Siebel system, it added.

Project Elixir is part of a broad push at Microsoft to position Office as a development platform, not just a set of individual programs. Because the Elixir code works only with Office 2003, the company sees the tool as a way to get customers to upgrade and spur sales of Windows Server and other software. Microsoft used its Visual Studio development tools and SQL Server for the Elixir project as well.

In a related effort, Microsoft and SAP are jointly developing software that links Outlook with the latter's business productivity systems. They just released a test version of that product, called Mendocino, last month.

CNET News.com's Ina Fried contributed to this report.