Microsoft business apps through the years: The journey of Dynamics 365 Customer Engagement

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As we reach the end of 2019, the Dynamics 365 Customer Engagement business app suite seems to be on its way out, at least in terms of branding and packaging. But it’s hard to say goodbye to a product name that you know well. From “Dynamics CRM” to “xRM” to “Dynamics 365 Customer Engagement” and finally “Power Platform” and “model-driven Power Apps”– the product line has indeed witnessed a major shift in feature offerings and platform capabilities.

Today, on the eve of the 2020s, we are already into the age of Power Apps and the Power Platform, a fitting point at which to mark the end of a decade of steady evolution. Microsoft’s efforts in the CRM space since the early 2000’s have evolved from a targeted offering for SMB segments to an enterprise-ready business suite providing off the shelf apps for various customer needs as well as a robust platform to extend these apps tailored for specific requirements.

While the rest of this piece will focus more on Dynamics CRM and Customer Engagement as we know of it today, I will also touch on other Microsoft products to help explain the evolution we’ve seen.

The birth and early years of Dynamics CRM

The time was January 2003, and Microsoft released its Customer Relationship Management software. The arrival of this offering in the CRM market was largely ignored because other well-known CRM software systems already ruling the market, notably Siebel. Technically, Microsoft’s early CRM was a product with very basic sales and service features.

Fast forward to 2005 and Microsoft released an enhanced version of the product. The new kid on the block suddenly got a major boost with the ability to allow end users to add custom entities and modify the system as per their needs. CRM started to get some attention but didn’t raise eyebrows in the market or catch the attention of its competitors.

The birth of xRM: December 2007

Another couple of years down the line came the first breakthrough of the product. Microsoft released a new version of the product – CRM 4.0 in December 2007. This was a shot in the arm for the product with added capabilities like multi-tenancy, multi-language and multi-currency. The updates added missing features and introduced the immortal extensibility features dubbed “Plugins & Workflows.”

The UI was revamped a lot with a bluish theme. And a new reporting wizard signaled to the market that this junior offering had come of age. While CRM 4.0 was gaining traction, Microsoft announced that it would extend its CRM offering online. The announcement made it clear that Microsoft was quite serious about its CRM business. Back in 2007, there wasn’t feature parity between on-premises and online versions. In fact, the online version lacked many of the features available on-prem – just the opposite of what we have now. Who would have thought that this announcement would one day shape the future of CRM offerings, both at Microsoft and in the larger market?

Around this time the term xRM was introduced. “One Platform. Many applications,” was how Microsoft explained it. The term caught on quickly and became quite popular among consultants and customers alike. On a personal front, this is the time when I had my tryst with Dynamics as well. At that time if anyone was asked to explain what xRM signified, the simplest answer was – “any relationship management”. And why not? The “x” signified a platform that allowed you to actually tailor the system to fit any customer requirements beyond the inbuilt sales and service modules.

CRM offered the ability to extend your data models (custom entities and modifying existing ones), extend your platform capabilities using plugin, workflows, and form scripting, and even host your own ASP.Net web applications as virtual directories in the CRM website.

Just when whispers began that Microsoft would make CRM into an xRM platform without application modules, Microsoft introduced the next version of CRM – CRM 2011 or 5.0. The term xRM continued, but the idea of a pure platform died out.

In my opinion the seeds of the Common Data Service (CDS) were already planted around this time, although with a limited scope.

The era of changing interfaces

The next two releases, CRM 2011 and 2013 brought major changes in UI experience. The jump from CRM 4.0 to 2011 in-fact saw some major enhancements both in the UI and platform. Although experiences varied based on implementations, anecdotally, most end-users seemed to like the UI changes a lot.