With both Microsoft and SAP taking a newfound interest in enterprise project management, an all out battle between these software behemoths seems inevitable.

There’s a battle brewing in the project management software arena and we’re just seeing the beginning of it.  Not long ago I spoke in these pages about the movement of Microsoft with Project 2002 into the enterprise project management space.  This had previously been the domain of only a select few project management software vendors who had quaintly become known as “high-end vendors”.  You know who I’m talking about; the Welcom’s, Primavera’s and Artemis’s of the world.  Well, less you were worried that Microsoft will be left an open field, there are other software giants also interested in the booming enterprise project management software market.

SAP, who’s impact on the ERP market in a relatively short time has been remarkable, has also taken aim at winning the hearts and minds of project managers everywhere.

Although the target seems the same, the approaches of these firms are quite different.

First of all, the notion of enterprise project management software is hardly new.  The very first project systems created on mainframes were directly targeted at enterprise work.  It’s true that the projects that would warrant project software in the early 70’s had to be mega projects in order to afford the software, hardware, implementation consulting and training costs required to make one of these systems work yet the analytical results went directly to management.

The increasing affordability of computing power and, in particular, the acceptance of Windows brought project management from a centrally controlled project management office to virtually anyone interested.  Even where no central project management existed, organizations could now enjoy some of the benefits of project management software because it was so easily accessible to end users. 

In the last few years, however, increasing interest in returning project data and analysis from individuals into the corporate pool has resulted in a newfound interest in centrally maintained project management.  Thus the interest in project management software that could bring these project individuals back together.

Microsoft’s latest release is directly targeted at this desire.  It’s only natural of course.  Microsoft has been amazingly successful at capturing the desktop market for project management software.  The ease-of-use in Project has made even scheduling neophytes able to develop professional looking schedules with a minimum of training.  Microsoft has been under increasing pressure for the last several years to make Project better able to deal with issues like multi-project, central resource pools, enterprise reporting and portfolio analysis.  The now almost universal use of the Internet has pushed for more collaborative functionality; all of this designed to bring project managers together. 

SAP however, has been under pressure also.  Their P/S module was designed to provide everything management would desired in project management analysis.  Fine – if you were in management.  The P/S system however, did not start out  with the end-user ease-of-use which Microsoft had so enjoyed.  The advantage of P/S, users were told, was its direct integration into all other aspects of the ERP system.  A project in P/S would typically have a tiny number of tasks – more like cost centers or cost accounts than the tasks one would think of in an end-user’s schedule.  SAP’s deployment of the system was greated with predictable results.  Financial management people seemed to like what they saw.  The system did have the high-end reports they desired.  Project schedulers and PMO’s were less happy.  Many fought to keep their existing scheduling systems.

Like Microsoft, SAP has made advances.  In this case instead of coming up from the desktop end-users towards the enterprise, SAP’s latest P/S module targets more toward the end-user.  Speaking to representatives from both firms can be fascinating.  They could share many of the same PowerPoint slides.  Both groups are directly targeting the enterprise project market and each has the advantages and disadvantages of their legacy systems.

SAP carries the stigma of being management’s system and not the system of the end-user; of the employee.  SAP must convince the end-user project managers that their tool can handle the capacity in an easy-to-user manner and they start from a reputation (whether fair or not) of being user-hostile.

Microsoft carries of stigma of not having been a serious project management tool.  Professional project managers have carried a long-standing opinion of Microsoft Project as a tool for inexperienced or unskilled project planners.  Microsoft must overcome those considerations and convince senior project personnel that they have the capabilities to handle enterprise-level use.  Microsoft must also convince management that Project is now of enterprise-level quality and can be integrated into core financial and production systems.  All of that being said, Microsoft carries the huge advantage of market penetration.  They can honestly say that they have sold more project management software than any other firm ever.  Microsoft clearly controls the desktop market.  It has become a universal axiom that virtually every major firm owns Project.  Microsoft has already won the project management market in numbers, now it will attempt to expand the influence of Project further into its clients.

Less you were worrying about all the other software vendors I’ve not named.  The initiatives of these two firms does not imply that other pm software publishers are out of business.  In fact, many will enjoy the likely spin off effects of huge interest being focused on the project management software industry.  It does mean, however, that you’re likely to see many vendors taking a more focused or niche approach to future development.  The contest of controlling the mainstream or generic project management software market has very little room for more players.

Who will win?  The jury has been barely convened and is certainly not out.  Each of these software giants have allocated tremendous resources at making this category of software key to their expansions. However, with the vast majority of end-users already using its tool, Microsoft has what must be the lesser challenge of expanding existing use rather than SAP’s challenge of expanding Financials into a new category.  

Still, just the efforts being expended in this contest is bound to have good fallout for project managers as more and more resources will focus on bringing project management to the enterprise level.