Get your small business ready for the Web

Like an iceberg, 90 percent of the Microsoft .NET initiative is hidden from view, seen internally only at Microsoft or exposed to developers through Microsoft Visual Studio.NET (VS.NET) and the Microsoft .NET Framework. (For a good overview of the .NET Framework, go to http://www.microsoft.com/net/whatis.asp.) The remaining 10 percent consists of customer-facing software that provides users with rich, personalized services that XML enables by facilitating the transmission of character-based data between platforms. As Microsoft moves its applications and servers toward enabling .NET, the company is providing three Web sites that illustrate the .NET experience:

  • VS.NET (http://msdn.microsoft.com/vstudio/nextgen/default.asp)—A Web site for .NET developers who use the Visual Studio (VS) tools
  • MSN (http://www.msn.com)—One of the top three Web sites on the Internet
  • bCentral (http://www.bcentral.com)—A portal for small-business services

With the bCentral site, Microsoft brings the .NET experience to small businesses by providing a collection of Web Services designed to help you get your business ready for the Web.

bCentral Services
Microsoft's bCentral offers small businesses (i.e., businesses with fewer than 100 employees) the opportunity to quickly and easily create and manage a hosted Web site. bCentral provides Web Services as an integrated suite of products that users can access from one portal. Microsoft has been steadily introducing elements of this Web portal strategy, including

  • Commerce Manager (November 2000)—Services for e-commerce
  • Customer Manager (December 2000)—A customer relationship management (CRM) package
  • Finance Manager (March 2001)—An integrated transactional accounting package
  • SharePoint Team Services (May 2001)—Microsoft's workgroup intranet-collaboration software
  • Appointment Manager (July 2001)—An appointment calendar that lets customers schedule appointments

Business Web Services provides a portfolio of services that support your Web site, including

  • Site Manager—The Site Builder Wizard walks you through basic Web site creation, offers you several different templates, and posts the files you create to the hosting service. The wizard also lets you access and modify your site.
  • Traffic Builder—This tool helps you register your site with 400 search engines and directory services (Submit It!), manage bulk email messages (ListBuilder), and participate in Web site banner advertising through a free trading system (LinkExchange).
  • Communications Center—This service provides email, file storage, and calendaring functions. The Communications Center administration page is a central communications hub from which users can add contacts to the system and manage contact information such as addresses, phone numbers, titles, and business information.
  • SharePoint Team Services—With SharePoint, you can create a Web site that lets a group of people work collaboratively on documents, essentially creating a hosted intranet for a group. Share-Point Team Services is a Web version of the highly regarded SharePoint Server software.
  • bCentral Business Card—Microsoft registers the user's domain name and creates a business card that it posts on MSN and other services.

Table 1 lists bCentral's components.

Microsoft is targeting these services at beginners, so ease of use is important. We found the bCentral site easy to navigate and the screens easy to understand. We were particularly impressed with some of the articles and white papers that Microsoft has posted on the site.

You register with bCentral once to enter your company and personal information and to establish an account for basic service access. After you register, bCentral recognizes you from information stored in a cookie; thereafter, you can log on automatically when you visit the site. (For users who have security concerns about using cookies, automatic logon and bCentral will be problematic. However, for novice users, automatic logon is a great convenience.)

The bCentral Mission
Figure 1, page 32, shows the bCentral home page as of September 13, 2001. In creating bCentral, Microsoft's goal was to provide an easy-to-use framework that even technologically unsophisticated business users can use as a primary business tool. Microsoft's mission statement for bCentral is "Making everyday business processes easy any time, any place, on any device." As bCentral Product Manager Marcus Schmidt told us, "We want to reinvent the way in which small, medium, and large businesses do business with customers and other businesses. We think customers are very interested in complete solutions that they can access from a single place." According to Microsoft, the original design goals for bCentral were

  • Make it easy for small businesses to self-manage a comprehensive business Web presence.
  • Build a foundational service that helps small businesses use the Web to run key business processes, such as customer relationships.
  • Integrate with FrontPage 2000 and later in particular and Microsoft Office in general to extend site-creation capabilities.
  • Develop effective, easy-to-use Web-based sales and marketing tools.
  • Create an e-commerce package that users can manage from one console.
  • Account for sales and revenues efficiently and securely through the Web.

Microsoft has organized bCentral around a task-oriented scheme that the company feels will make navigation easy for novice users. We initially found moving about the site confusing; however, with experience, we think that this organization won't be a major problem.

The bCentral Partnerships
With bCentral, Microsoft is both innovating and partnering with a small number of companies in key business segments. Some services, such as the accounting and calendaring functions, are home grown. Some services, such as the postage facility offered through Stamps.com, are partnerships. And Microsoft is acquiring some functionality, such as in the case of the bulk email program ListBot. The current partnership categories that Microsoft has defined are

  • Commercial Aggregators—This category includes Compaq, Stamps.com, Office Depot, and CDW.
  • Internet Utilities—Current partners include Office.com and Rivio.
  • Breadth Consultants—This category includes Microsoft.
  • Verticals and Marketplaces—bCentral uses the capabilities of Bizjournals.com, VerticalNet, and eBay to provide services such as listing and auctioning.

bCentral Integration
The Yankee Group estimates that there are about 8.8 million very small businesses (2 to 19 people) and 783,657 small businesses (20 to 99 people). According to a Forrester Research study, 15 percent of small businesses had Web sites in 2000 and 91 percent of those Web sites were outsourced, hosted sites. According to the Forrester study, the number of outsourced small business Web sites is expected to grow to 99.7 percent by 2003, and essentially all those sites will be outsourced. Assuming that each site costs $600 per year to maintain, as the Forrester study asserts, the nearly 10 million very small and small businesses will create an annual hosting market of $6 billion.

In the near future, when you create an envelope in Microsoft Word, you might have the opportunity to print a stamp on that envelope from bCentral. When you search for services online at MSN, you'll be browsing catalogs of bCentral vendors. When you power up a Compaq desktop, you might see an icon for bCentral. When you purchase an item at a Web site, the Web server will use Microsoft Passport (a .NET service) to validate your credentials and your credit card transactions will flow through bCentral without you ever realizing it.

Although much is made of the integrated nature of the bCentral services and the value of Web sites' growing ability to personalize those services for individual businesses, businesses might find themselves drawn to bCentral because of its integration with other Microsoft products. Currently, FrontPage integrates with Commerce Manager, Customer Manager, Traffic Builder, and Site Manager. Microsoft Excel integrates with Commerce Manager.

The value of the bCentral site is its ability to pass along services at low prices because of massive economies of scale. We became interested in bCentral when we were considering services for emailing newsletters to clients and wanted to process credit card sales from a catalog built on a site we'd created with FrontPage's Corporate Presence Wizard. In both instances, bCentral was far cheaper than the other alternatives we considered.

bCentral started out with its own authentication server. However, the site is due to use Passport, the user-credential technology from .NET My Services. (.NET My Services is Microsoft's set of basic .NET services that includes email and authentication. For more information about .NET My Services, go to http://www.microsoft.com/net/netmyservices.asp.)

Because bCentral is browser based, you can use your account name (usually your email address) and your password to log on to the bCentral site from anywhere. Figure 2, page 35, shows the bCentral logon screen.

Microsoft has a long history of software integration, dating back as far as the company's introduction of Microsoft Works for Macintosh. This tradition continues with bCentral, which provides interconnected business services from one interface. With the assistance of bCentral, small businesses can maintain one integrated view of their customer information, including Commerce Manager's posting of orders for products and services, Finance Manager's listing of accounts receivable based on posted transactions, and Customer Manager's nontransactional customer information such as tasks, faxes, meetings, customer history, email messages, and telephone calls.

The integration between Commerce Manager and Finance Manager lets orders automatically become accounting transactions. Users don't need to reenter data between the commerce system and the accounting system. Whether orders come from a company's Web site or from a Web marketplace in which the company has items listed, all orders are available in one integrated place, a central sales console.

Currently, all accounting data from sales must reside on Microsoft's hosted site. bCentral doesn't yet let users import sales data to their own accounting package, although Microsoft says that a feature to do so is in the works. Thus, if you need to combine Web sales data with data from other sales channels or if you feel uncomfortable storing your company's financial information on Microsoft's servers, you might want to pass on Finance Manager for now. However, you can still use Commerce Manager and dump order information into an Excel spreadsheet.

A Site Manager—created Web site also integrates with other modules. Forms that say Contact us link to Customer Manager and Commerce Manager's product catalog and shopping cart features. At the moment, the functionality for small businesses to change prices, apply discounts, and test other marketing techniques is limited. However, users who can live with these limitations in their e-commerce package can realize a significant benefit by getting basic functionality at a low cost.

Site Manager
Now, let's focus on a few of bCentral's services. Microsoft developed Site Manager to support three fundamental objectives that let small businesses leverage the power of the Internet:

  • Deliver an easy-to-use Web site building and hosting service.
  • Provide a single point of contact for small-business Web sites.
  • Deliver seamless integration with the bCentral Web marketing service.

Compared with other Web site generators and hosting services, Site Manager's Site Builder Wizard is easy to use. Users who've already developed their Web site's content can build a basic site in fewer than 30 minutes, which many users will find appealing. The trade-off is that Site Manager is also somewhat limited in functionality. The same is true with many other bCentral modules, such as Finance Manager and List Builder.

Users who want a more customized site but can't create it themselves can pay $499 for a Microsoft designer to create the Web site for them. For an additional fee, the designer will also edit and maintain the site to users' specifications.

More experienced users can import FrontPage-generated Web sites into Site Manager or use FrontPage to modify Site Builder-created sites. Hosting services aren't unique, and most of the larger services support FrontPage. However, the price of Site Manager is competitive with other leading vendors' offerings.

Commerce Manager
The heart of bCentral's Commerce Manager is the Seller Console, which is the key interface between the seller and all products, marketplaces, and orders. The Seller Console consists of four main sections, or managers:

  • Catalog Manager—Creates and maintains a list of items to sell
  • Marketplace Manager—Signs up and maintains relationships with marketplaces
  • Order Manager—Processes incoming orders
  • Report Manager—Generates reports and links to other bCentral modules

For the price of the Web site or with a Commerce Manager subscription, you can create a catalog and list your company's products and services online. (To use Commerce Manager, you must have a Web site, even if your Web site is built and hosted elsewhere.) Catalog creation is wizard driven. Commerce Manager uses shopping-cart technology to accept and process orders. Realtime credit card processing is part of the service, but you must have a credit card service. Microsoft has a partnership with Cardservice International to provide this service for all major credit cards for a fee of $29.95 per month plus a standard credit card transaction fee.

You use Catalog Manager's wizard to build a catalog of products, outlining the selling terms, payment rules, shipping methods, and other features. You can enter each product individually, which is tedious if you need to enter many products, or use an Excel spreadsheet to upload multiple products at once.

You use Order Manager to handle financial transactions on a Site Manager Web site. When shoppers click on a product's Add to Cart button, Order Manager is activated. Customers can choose item-based or order-based shipping and various shipping methods, including overnight delivery. Order Manager calculates shipping costs in realtime; these costs depend on the number of units being shipped and the type of carrier selected. Order Manager also calculates state sales tax and adds this tax to the shopper's bill during the purchase process.

Hit Generators
Small businesses are always looking for ways to increase sales. Businesses can use Traffic Builder to promote their Web site or use Commerce Manager to sell their products on popular Internet marketplaces. Traffic Builder's Submit It! service lets users pick from 400 search engines and directories, eliminating the need to manually list a site on search engines. A wizard walks users through adding metatags to keywords in their Web site so that search engines can find those words.

Businesses can measure how well their keywords fare in important search engines. Businesses can also tweak the words to try to obtain a higher position for their Web site in the search results.

The .NET Connection
Microsoft's bCentral is the poster child for much of what the company hopes to achieve with .NET. As Schmidt puts it, "We're an internal customer of .NET, and we're one of the leading proponents in the company of the concept of software as a service. Microsoft sees bCentral as a great proving ground for .NET technology."

Figure 3 shows how bCentral uses .NET services. bCentral uses Microsoft's .NET servers as Microsoft introduces them and is beginning to adopt the .NET services in .NET My Services. bCentral uses .NET in four specific areas:

  • Identity—.NET services such as Passport make account management easier for users and provide support on a wide range of devices.
  • Personalization—.NET services store a profile of users, their preferences, and the rules that they want to apply to their business transactions.
  • XML Store—.NET uses XML to store data and exchange it with partners and third parties who provide services to customers.
  • Directory and Search—bCentral integrates into Web directories to provide advanced search capabilities against data stored in XML format.

In keeping with .NET's strong wireless component, Microsoft plans to extend bCentral services to mobile devices, including Web-enabled cell phones. This mobile access capability for all bCentral services is a crucial capability for small businesses and a strong differentiator from other business services.

The bCentral Business Model
When Microsoft conceptualized bCentral in 1998, business-to-business (B2B) portals were all the rage and a small-business portal offering a range of integrated services seemed to address an enormous market need. Many companies started services to help small businesses establish e-commerce Web sites.

But the market reality is that small businesses are cost sensitive and volatile. According to Schmidt, "The biggest surprise for us is that the nature of the small-business market is such that it's hard to create a subscriber for life." When we researched this article, only 4 percent (65,000 users at the time of writing) of bCentral's registered users were paying customers—a small number for a site as ambitious as this one.

bCentral competes with Yahoo! Stores, Intuit, Bigstep, Oracle NetLedger, Oracle Small Business Online, Amazon.com, eBay (now a bCentral partner), and others. In comparison with the competition, bCentral's subscription numbers are reasonable in what is, after all, a relatively new marketplace.

Microsoft bCentral is both less and more appealing than its competitors. It's less appealing because not one of its services is overwhelmingly best of breed; it's more appealing because it's a comprehensive small-business portal. We wonder whether small businesses are ready for a Web-based business tool such as bCentral and whether those businesses will be willing to give up local control over their data. bCentral might be a little ahead of its time and is likely to change substantially over the next year as Microsoft gains experience in this area.