Microsoft's attempt to enter the high-end business market has been under much discussion recently due to the Oracle court case. The US government has argued that if Oracle is allowed to take over rival PeopleSoft, it leaves only SAP as a competitor.

But Oracle argues that Microsoft is a looming threat, with Oracle's CEO even stating that it needs to takeover PeopleSoft to prepare the ground for Microsoft once the software giant has its battle plans organised. However, there has been a mixed response to Microsoft's foray into the customer relationship management (CRM) market with users frustrated by a slower-than-expected development path.

Microsoft now expects to have Version 2 of its CRM software ready in mid-2005, more than two years after it released the first version in the US. In the meantime, the company has issued point upgrades to fix bugs and expand functionality. "I think Microsoft CRM wasn't ready when it was released," said one customer, the CEO of Promarketing Gear, Jeremy Whiteley. He has switched from GoldMine to Microsoft CRM, then switched back.

Fortunately for Australian customers, the lead time between versions will be about 12 months rather than two years because the product wasn't available locally until March this year. Microsoft says 80 percent of the mid-market is still without any CRM products and the software giant is keen to fill this gap.

The high end of the CRM market is dominated by SAP, PeopleSoft, Oracle and Siebel; the lower end by ASPs like Salesforce.com and inexpensive contact management systems like FrontRange and GoldMine, but the middle ground is still an open market.

Meta Group senior analyst technology research services Michael Warrilow says Microsoft's assessment of the market is correct and despite a number of existing players it is highly fragmented. But he said there are mixed reports about Microsoft's offering from customers. "From what I understand it's architecturally a well-designed product, with the Outlook integration extensive and it has done some cutting-edge stuff on the interface front," Warrilow said.

"On the other hand, if you look at it from a functional breadth, it's missing some features, mainly in its marketing capability. But I do think Microsoft has done a reasonable job for a first-generation product." Asked about the lengthy time between updates, Warrilow said products shouldn't be shipped that aren't ready.

And dissent in Microsoft's home market about the length of time between updates of the product? A Microsoft CRM customer for the past 12 months, Bullseye director of technical services, Michael Chanter, said the solution has allowed the company to restructure its sales processes but there were some missing features. "Initially the key thing that was frustrating was that the product could not directly integrate to a mobile platform. However, Microsoft has now addressed this problem," Chanter said.

And as for release of Microsoft CRM 2.0, Chanter is definitely interested in updating. "We're pretty committed to the product. I guess there has been some time between releases, but there have been added enhancements and improvements along the way," Chanter said.