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Microsoft retools for small business

The software giant releases a slew of new and updated products meant to help small businesses in the retail market.

Microsoft released a handful of products and services aimed at small businesses, specifically those in the retail sector.

The Redmond, Wash.-based software maker on Monday launched a set of tools designed to help companies that use its Microsoft Business Solutions Retail Management System, a point-of-sale application for small to midsize companies. The new package includes a customization guide, implementation tips, virtual testing labs, research tools and a newsletter to be distributed among businesses that use the retail applications.

Microsoft believes that the package should prove helpful in automation projects at smaller retailers, many of which still rely on manual record-keeping methods such as paper ledgers. The package also aims to aid companies in tracking customer service and inventory issues and to help integrate financial applications and business intelligence tools.

The products were officially introduced at the ongoing Retail Systems 2004/VICS Collaborative Commerce conference in Chicago.

The release of the products underscores Microsoft's growing focus on small and midsize businesses. Last year, the company launched a customer relationship management (CRM) system, its first set of business applications for the small-business segment. Some analysts view Microsoft as a growing threat to rival small-business software vendors, including SAP, and Oracle, which are also hoping to cash in on a projected upswing in information technology spending.

Under a partnership with the National Retail Federation, Microsoft is encouraging companies that use its retail tools to place its own logo on their products. The .Net Connected for Smarter Retailing name shows that companies involved in the program are using Microsoft's products to build XML-based Web services, the software giant said. The program will officially launch on June 1.

Microsoft also said it will partner with the U.S. Small Business Administration to sponsor a set of programs and a show, dubbed Microsoft Across America, designed to make technology more accessible to small businesses. The show will travel across the nation and attempt to better inform small businesses about Microsoft's products, including its Office Small Business Edition 2003, MapPoint, Retail Management System and Windows Small Business Server 2003 applications.

"Small businesses are a major force in the U.S. economy, when you look at their capital expenditures and how much of their revenue is distributed back into local communities," Cindy Bates, general manager at Microsoft, said in a statement. "Today, small businesses are looking for new ways to expand their customer base and stay competitive; many are leveraging technology to support their growth. That's why we're working to bring technology to small businesses."

In related news, the software maker released a package of upgrades for its Microsoft Commerce Server 2002 application, which is used to manage e-commerce systems. The Feature Pack 1 release encompasses three major changes: updated catalog and discount management business user interfaces; a staging area for testing systems changes; and new payment and product catalog features.

The company also previewed the next release of its commerce server software, due early in 2006, promising tighter integration with its BizTalk Server and Visual Studio .Net products, revamped user interfaces, expanded reporting tools and additional customer self-service capabilities.

In addition, Microsoft announced that it signed a new agreement with consulting firm BearingPoint to facilitate the development and delivery of technology to national and local government markets.

Under the agreement, BearingPoint and Microsoft said they plan to build products for program management, electronic document filing, e-government, Web services, homeland security and public pension administration. Last March, the two companies jointly released a document filing automation package for state governments.