Sage puts Act on annual upgrade path, releases Act 2006

Sage Software released a new version of Act on Tuesday, a step toward what the company says will now be annual overhauls of its nearly 20-year-old contact management software.

Last year's Act 2005 release marked a major update of the software, which received a complete architectural rewrite around Microsoft's .Net platform and SQL database after having gone several years without significant new development. Act 2006, which will begin arriving in retail stores this week, adds a number of user-requested features and helps smooth some of the pain points associated with the software's transition to a new architecture.

ACT 2006's back-end changes include synchronization system fixes intended to speed up that process and new integration support for IBM's Lotus Notes. The software's interface has been tweaked to allow users to more easily associate contacts with multiple groups or organizations, and to create hyperlinks when linking contacts to customers. The new version also adds support for a user feature Sage's executives say is often requested: Automatically printing phone numbers on Act's calendars of scheduled calls and meetings.

Last year Sage split Act into two products, a standard version and Act Premium for Workgroups, which is aimed at organizations running Act for up to 50 employees. Act Premium 2006 includes a number of new security and administration features, including support for silent installation, custom user permissions to control which users can modify and export database entries, and automated backup and synchronization options.

Act 2006 is priced at US$230 per user or US$150 as an upgrade. Act Premium 2006 has a US$400 list price, or US$260 as an upgrade. In June, Sage released a long-awaited Web version of Act. Act for Web 2006 won't be available for several more months, so customers running both Act's client and Web versions are advised to wait before upgrading, said Larry Ritter, Sage's vice president of Act product management.

Act 2006 also marks the introduction of several new offerings for customers who want deeper access to the software's underpinnings. An Act Reader license, priced at US$400, will allow administrators to examine Act's SQL database tables and extract information directly. For US$1,000, Sage will sell customers an Act SA (system administrator) password -- what Ritter calls "the keys to the kingdom of the SQL database" -- with the caveat that customers only use that access for backup purposes.

Sage, which recently changed its name from Best Software, is walking the line between giving customers enough control over Act to customize it to their needs while trying to fend off any shift toward becoming a broader CRM (customer relationship management) platform. Act is a granddaddy in the contact management market, with a customer base Sage estimates at around 2.5 million, and Sage views its limited functionality and simplicity as a key part of its success, Ritter said. For more complex CRM needs, Sage sells higher-end products, including SalesLogix.

"We don't want people in there tinkering through the database. We'd rather they do that through the SDK," Ritter said. "Our business model has been built around turnkey software. We are not, and don't want to be, a development platform."

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