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BackOffice opens for small business

Microsoft will next month turn its attention to small business owners with the debut of a scaled-down BackOffice package.

Having already announced plans to develop an upscale version of its BackOffice server application bundle, Microsoft (MSFT) will next month turn its attention to small business owners with the debut of a scaled-down BackOffice package.

The company will begin beta testing BackOffice Small Business Server within the next two weeks, according to sources close to the company. The package is slated to ship this fall.

After years of selling products to mainstream corporate users, a growing crowd of software, hardware, and networking equipment makers are now targeting the small business market, which makes up an increasingly large segment of the economy. Analysts say the small business market will be one of the most heavily contested battlegrounds for vendors such as Microsoft, SAP, Cisco, and Lotus Development.

Microsoft Small Business Server will include several of the applications packaged in the standard BackOffice bundle, will add a handful of new features aimed at making installation, setup, and management easier, and will support up to 25 users, according to sources.

Pricing has not been determined, but sources expect the bundle's price tag to be significantly smaller than BackOffice's current $2,499 standard list price.

The bundle will include the SQL Server database, Windows NT Server operating system, Internet Information Server Web server, the Exchange email and groupware package, and Proxy Server. Systems Management Server and SNA Server, found in the standard BackOffice bundle, will be omitted from the Small Business Server.

The overall goal of the bundle will be to make it as easy to use as possible, said sources. To that end, Microsoft has created all-new installation and management tools to be included in the Small Business Server that help novice users through the setup process.

User and resource management will be consolidated into easy-to-use tools in the Small Business Server. Tools to centrally distribute applications also will be included.

It is unclear whether the new bundle will also include Microsoft's routing and remote access software, code-named Steelhead. The software lets NT users connect to a network and communicate with routing and switching hardware. It is expected to appeal to small businesses that do not feel comfortable installing and configuring networking hardware.

As reported by CNET's NEWS.COM last December, Microsoft has been planning to offer specialized versions of its BackOffice package for many months. The company has already debuted a BackOffice derived package intended for Internet service providers, and in May disclosed plans to build a high-end version of BackOffice, called BackOffice Enterprise Edition, for supporting thousands of users.