Duet Lives! SAP and Microsoft’s Office Interface Still Alive and Kicking

I spent a lot of analyst capital over the last two years crowing about what I thought, and still think, was a brilliant idea: marrying the Office user experience, primarily Excel and Outlook, to the enterprise software back office. The catalyst for my interest was the myriad conversations with users about how much they hated their enterprise software and how, conversely, comfortable they were using Office (the older, 2003 version, not the 2007 “upgrade.) So when SAP and Microsoft came out with Duet, this incipient marriage looked like the perfect expression of a real market need.

Then things began to change. First, Shai Agassi, Duet’s main proponent, abruptly left SAP in a management power struggle, knocking Duet’s status inside SAP down a few notches. Then Microsoft got its own version of Office religion, and began a separate and, in many ways, competitive effort to ensure that the Office + ERP concept benefited Microsoft the most.

And, while Duet was never actually let out to pasture, the once juggernaut of SAP’s business user focus drifted into near-oblivion: lacking a high-level advocate like Agassi, the scuttlebutt about Duet turned into a funeral dirge. All that seemed to be missing was the headstone.

In the ensuing two-plus years, much has been made of the use of Office as the front-end of choice for many enterprise functions, so much that it has become a point of pride among third party ISVs to office an Excel interface or Outlook tie-in for their enterprise apps. And for good reason: the absolute, top notch, number one competitor to every enterprise application of any size is Excel, hands down. With Outlook a close second, particularly for CRM users. So, with acknowledgment by co-optation being the sincerest form of competitive zeal, the market for tying Office to the back office moved forward, even if Duet seemingly did not.

Now it seems, that reports of Duets death were greatly exaggerated. I just got off a call with the Duet team at SAP – one that I had initiated, meaning that outbound marketing for Duet is still a little stealthy – and heard that indeed the product had a new version release last December, and is going GA later this year. Meanwhile, there’s a concerted effort to spec out new functionality for the next release, which will include a partner development kit intended to grow the third party Duet market.

Meanwhile, Duet now has a Demand Planning scenario, which allows sales, marketing, and other collaborators in the demand planning process to build their forecasts in Excel and then essentially upload an aggregated demand plan to SAP’s supply chain management system. In case you haven’t spent that much time looking at this process, Excel is the main initial starting point for most demand plans, regardless of what planning engine eventually crunches the numbers and spits out the plan.

Also of interest is a workflow approval toolkit, that lets an Outlook email or task be added to any standard SAP workflow, essentially broadening the approval process by letting users already in Outlook participate in the process without exiting to SAP. This function has an added bonus of supporting compliance efforts by automatically accounting for any segregation of duty requirements already built into SAP by its GRC functionality.

Okay, you ask, so Duet lives, but how much? Right now, SAP isn’t talking about current sales and ramp-up efforts except to say that a total of 1 million licenses to 500 customers have been sold in the last two years, and that the current version, which is in pre-GA ramp-up, has 30 customers. That tells us nothing about the last two years of sales, but one can assume that Duet wasn’t exactly lighting a fire under SAP during the time, or else the impact would have been noted, especially in an environment where sales successes are not as easy to come by as they once were.

However, SAP is claiming a good pipeline for the product, and promising more attention to creating buzz for Duet, particularly in the partner community. Microsoft, I suspect, is a little less enthusiastic, particularly as it has finally begun to consider its internal Dynamics product line as much more intrinsic to its success – and the success of projects like Azure – than it did in 2006 when the Duet deal was first brokered.

Most importantly, this is a product – or concept, if you would rather buy a Microsoft branded version of Duet – that continues to ride the growing disconnect between casual users of enterprise software and the vendors and developers of these applications. Casual users don’t like enterprise software, and, though it looks more like the Stockholm Syndrome than genuine love, most of the same users love, or at least tolerate, Microsoft Office. The demand will only grow as casual users are required – forced, in many cases – to do more work inside the enterprise software suite.

So, welcome back Duet. We missed you and every other version of the concept, regardless of which vendor brand it carries. Office isn’t going away, and co-opting it is certainly second best to actually replacing it. Meanwhile, users of world, rejoice in your hidden market power. You have voted for Office, and the market has responded. Who knew democracy was alive and well in the enterprise software market?

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Industry Analyst, Consultant and author, former programmer, systems analyst with 25 years experience. Spent three years in Europe as an industry analyst and as Correspondent for Information Week and other industry publications. Regularly consults with leading public and private enterprise software, database, and infrastructure companies. An award-winning columnist for leading IT and business magazines, Josh is widely quoted in the trade and business press and he blogs at Enterprise Matters.