Microsoft updates Commerce Server

Three months after scrapping an effort to integrate its e-commerce, content management and integration software into one suite of products, Microsoft has decided to forge ahead with another major release of its e-commerce server software, which it expects to release in early 2006.

The successor to Commerce Server 2002 will have an improved user interface, new reporting features, and tighter integration with Microsoft's BizTalk Server and Visual Studio. Net. It will also have a feature that will allow online businesses make order-checking and account information available to their customers.

A beta version of the new software will be available in the first half of 2005, said Stacey Ellingson, the product manager with the Business Process and Integration division at Microsoft.

Though Microsoft is no longer planning to integrate Commerce Server with its BizTalk Server and Content Management Server software, the company will integrate the new version of Commerce Server with Content Management Server in an upcoming release of Microsoft Solution for Internet Business, slated for release in 2006.

Better integration with Microsoft SQL Server and Visual Studio is also planned. In the next release of Commerce Server, for example, users will use SQL Server's Reporting Services for report generation, Ellingson said.

The Commerce Server software has been around for about 10 years, previously under the Site Server and Merchant Server brand names, but Commerce Server itself has only about 3,700 customers worldwide, Microsoft said.

The product has been squeezed between Web hosting providers at the low end and the e-commerce offerings of companies such as IBM at the high end, said Rob Helm a director of research with Directions on Microsoft, an industry research company.

"It wasn't clear, long term, whether Commerce Server as a product was going to stick around, but clearly Microsoft cares a lot about Web site hosting, and the capabilities of Commerce Server will be around in some form," Helm said.

Monday's announcement should answer questions about the product's road map, said Steven Martin, the group product manager with Microsoft's Business Process and Integration division. "We're trying to make it very clear that, based on the feedback from customers, this is a product that has a very clear road map," he said.

Microsoft will offer customers a glimpse of the new user interface as part of a software upgrade to Commerce Server that the company will release on Monday. Commerce Server's Business Desk feature has been rewritten in the new interface, which is more "Windows-like" than its previous Web interface, Ellingson said.

"We took advantage of the latest and greatest .Net technologies to make the user interface much (faster)," she said.

The Commerce Server upgrade, called Feature Pack 1, will also let customers create codes for sales promotions on their Web sites and, in conjunction with Microsoft's Application Center software, will have improved site-staging capabilities, which will make it easier for users to test e-commerce sites locally before they are pushed onto the Web.

Feature Pack 1 will be available as a free upgrade for Commerce Server users, Ellingson said.

The Standard Edition of Commerce Server 2002 costs US$6,999. A developer version is also available, priced at US$499, and Microsoft also sells an Enterprise Edition of the product, priced at US$19,999 per processor. Pricing for the upcoming version of the product was not available.

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