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Microsoft quietly opens online store

An online software store that once struck terror in the hearts of software resellers launches with four major Net software outlets as participants.

An online software store from Microsoft that once struck terror in the hearts of software resellers has quietly launched with four major Net software outlets as participants.

Once carrying the explosive code name Nitro, Microsoft's first online store is open for business and modestly titled Shop.Microsoft.

Although visitors can buy Microsoft software, hardware, and books directly from the company for full list price, the same merchandise is available for generally lower "street prices" through online resellers Beyond.com, CDW, CompUSA, and Insight. Other resellers will be added over the next few months, Microsoft said.

"The objective for the online store is to make sure our customers can acquire Microsoft products when, where, and how they want them," Steve Schiro, vice president of Microsoft's consumer customer unit, said in a statement. He also described the site as "a unique opportunity for the channel," a term used to describe resellers.

Still, Microsoft's revamped offering may not assuage all critics. The fiercest battle between Microsoft and software resellers has been over who owns the data about customers. Resellers generally regard customer information as the crown jewels of their business, but Shop.Microsoft will give Microsoft extensive data on any customer who buys through its storefront.

The Nitro program, for New Interactive Technology for Reselling Online, initially began as a prototype store called ByteComp.com, which Microsoft launched in November 1997. That site did not handle transactions but showcased software code and components for a "store of the future," with tips for online resellers to use those components in their own stores.

Exactly one year ago, Nitro was announced in an effort to create buying opportunities to the millions who visit Microsoft's Web site every week. "We're trying to convert those visitors into buyers," Neil Farnsworth, general manager of business development for Microsoft's consumer unit, said at the time.

The program was then designed to put "buy now" buttons on every page of the massive Microsoft site to speed the transition from browsers to buyers. Microsoft also intended to charge a small transaction fee for each order it referred, another sticking point for reseller.

Consumer-oriented Shop.microsoft.com offers comprehensive product information and specifications on any Microsoft product sold in the United States. A store for Canada will follow, with other localized versions planned too.

Microsoft also is using the store to showcase its Windows NT operating system, database, Web server, and e-commerce software.