Web rush begins

By launching a free internet access package for small businesses this week, Newcastle-based Sage signalled its intention to expand from its position as the Microsoft of the small business accountancy software market to become an even more dominant player in the electronic commerce field.

The company’s initiative borrows heavily from Dixons’ spectacularly successful Freeserve internet initiative in the consumer market.

All Sage customers, from users of the entry-level Instant Accounts PC package to Tetra’s C/S3 enterprise resource planning suite, will be entitled to a free internet account giving them access to the Press Association news feed, Dun & Bradstreet credit checks, Parcel Force’s delivery tracking service, plus online travel agency and IT support services.

With a global user community of 2.1 million, mainly in small and medium-sized businesses, Sage is in an ideal position to build what is known in Web-speak as a ‘portal’.

Sage managing director Graham Wylie explained that, in contrast to the consumer Freeserve site, ‘we know who our users are and will be able to generate revenues from them much more quickly.’

Small businesses and accountants who sign up for will be given 15Mb of free Web space, available from 1 June. The package will include a basic, design-it-yourself program which is supplied as part of the deal with IBM and online service provider Planet Online.

For an extra £25-£150, subscribers will be able to build online ‘storefronts’ using IBM’s Home Page Creator package.

‘We see these storefronts as an order-processing front end that is a natural extension of what we do,’ said Sage’s business development director Peter Stobart.

In marketing terms, is a masterstroke. Currently, just 3% of Sage small business users have a web-site and if even a small proportion of them take up the free internet access offer, could become a leading SME portal within a few weeks.

The day after the Sage launch, Dixons announced its plans to extend Freeserve to small businesses.

But the Sage model breaks down somewhat at the transactional level. Apart from C/S3, Sage’s UK accounting programs are not equipped to process orders placed via websites. Work is in hand, Wylie promised, to deliver this functionality in a couple of months.

CSM’s plans are more modest, but help to validate the Web as a source of essential business information. CSM software is bundled into the Accountant’s Desktop. Following its Birmingham announcement, the CSM desktop will be able to access the World Wide Web, with a built-in link to the AccountingWEB site.

‘We feel we should make it easy for accountants to access valuable information, and links to the most useful websites from CSM’s desktop will help them make the best use of their time by speeding up their search for information,’ said CSM managing director Peter Mart.

Unlike, AccountingWEB is impartial, according to Mart. ‘Anybody owning a site with a vested interest in the market will be selective about what they tell people,’ he said.

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