Microsoft eyes small businesses with new services

The software maker announces three new subscription-based Web services as part of its bCentral initiative aimed at the small-business market.

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Microsoft announced three new subscription-based Web services Wednesday as part of an effort to bolster its small-business push.

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Microsoft thinks big for small business
Kathleen Hebert, VP, small business division, Microsoft

The new services, which will be part of Microsoft's bCentral small-business initiative, are intended to help small companies participate in multiple online marketplaces, manage and automate their customer relationships, and manage their finances over the Web.

The Redmond, Wash.-based software giant joins a number of companies that are working to tap the vast market of small businesses. It is competing against a growing list of hefty players including Yahoo, IBM and America Online, all of which have begun offering services fit for businesses with modest revenues and a small number of employees. AOL's Netscape Communications, for instance, in September launched Netbusiness to help small businesses move their operations to the Web.

All of the players are attempting to draw revenues from small-time entrepreneurs looking to the Web to grow their businesses, offering a mix of content, tools, e-commerce and Web applications.

Two of Microsoft's new services, bCentral Commerce Manager and bCentral Customer Manager, will be made available later this fall, while Finance Manager will be launched in early 2001, the company said.

Commerce Manager is intended to help business owners manage catalogs, orders and credit card processing over online marketplaces, also known as trading exchanges. Using the Web-based application, companies can list products for sale on several marketplaces and also connect and begin transacting with larger trading partners via these marketplaces.

A number of companies, large and small, have recently adopted or joined Net marketplaces as a way to save money and eliminate the mounds of paperwork typically involved in purchasing by moving the rather cumbersome process to the Web.

Customer Manager lets small businesses manage sales leads, customers and partners over the Web. Finance Manager is a Web-based application for handling accounts, receivables and payables, and other financial activities.

Microsoft, which touts 1 million registered users on bCentral, has been aggressive in introducing new services designed for small companies. But not all of its small-business services have been successful.

The company in July shelved one marketing service for small businesses, acknowledging that it couldn't help those companies overcome the financial advantages of their larger competitors. In the spring, bCentral had launched a trial program to offer small businesses the chance to buy placement among search results on Microsoft's MSN Search site, but by the summer conceded that it could not provide them with keywords that were both available and effective.

Still, the giant continues to beef up services available on bCentral. The program, which launched last September, recently introduced Business Web Services, a collection of hosted Web tools, email, e-commerce and marketing applications for small companies.

Microsoft also recently made Microsoft Office applications available to small businesses over the Web on a pay-as-you-go, subscription basis.