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Microsoft joins portal party

The software maker attempts to catch up to competitors with new Web-based business software.

Microsoft plans to move further into the business applications software market this spring with new programs targeted at midsize companies.

The Redmond, Wash.-based software maker plans to launch business "portal" software, which will let workers access data and applications using a Web browser, according to Microsoft executives.

Microsoft's Business Solutions division will demonstrate two new products, Business Portal and Human Resources Management (HRM) Self-Service Suite, at its annual Convergence conference in Orlando, Fla., next month, said Mark Jensen, group product manager at Microsoft. The two products will be available in the United States by June, he said.

The products, which are designed to let workers do things like update their human resources information and download sales reports over the Web, are the latest to come out of Microsoft Business Solutions, a new unit formed from the company's acquisitions of Great Plains Software and Navision.

Microsoft is several years behind the market, however, with the impending introduction of such software, said Joshua Greenbaum, an analyst at Enterprise Applications Consulting. Microsoft competitors SAP and PeopleSoft began introducing portal applications in the late '90s.

"They are patching a big competitive hole in their product line," Greenbaum said. "This puts them at the forefront of technology circa 1997."

While Microsoft executives admit that the company is a straggler to the "business portal" software market, they said the new products introduce the portal concept--used throughout the Fortune 500--to smaller companies.

Jensen said the new applications are priced for a segment of the market that has been largely unable to afford such technology--midsize companies with fewer than 2,000 employees.

"No, self-service is not new to enterprise customers," Jensen said. "But it is new to midmarket companies."

Software with the designation "portal" and "self-service" has become increasingly popular with businesses. Software makers have touted such applications as a way for companies to reduce paperwork and administrative costs, while giving employees direct, immediate access to information that helps them do their jobs.

Microsoft has designed the new applications to be compatible with its Great Plains and Solomon lines of accounting, payroll and human resources software, Jensen said.

The software maker is moving aggressively into the business applications software market. Earlier this year, Microsoft announced a new line of customer relationship management software, setting up a potential clash with market leaders Siebel Systems, SAP and Oracle. Last week, the company said it is also testing a desktop CRM tool that will be included in a new version of its popular Outlook e-mail client software.

The Business Portal will be available for free to companies already licensing Microsoft Great Plains and Solomon software, plus $65 for additional users. The HRM Self-Service Suite is priced at $5,000, plus $65 per user.

Software from SAP, PeopleSoft and other business application companies typically appeal to larger, multinational companies and can carry a multimillion-dollar price tag.