Microsoft updates accounting suite

Microsoft has released an update to its Small Business Manager, an integrated collection of accounting modules that interoperates with Microsoft Office applications as well as some Microsoft Web services for small businesses.

Microsoft designed Small Business Manager 7.0 for use by businesses with less than US$5 million in revenues and fewer than 25 employees, says Karen Engel, lead product manager for Microsoft Small Business Manager. It is Microsoft's second update of the product since its acquisition of Great Plains Software. Microsoft bought the accounting software company about two years ago. The product comes from the Microsoft Business Solutions group, which promotes a mix of services and packaged products.

Single Package

Unlike some competitors, Microsoft doesn't market the modules for this accounting package separately. The company bundles the standard selection into a suite. Primary new functions in this release are inventory management, purchase order procuring, and sales order procuring, Engel says.

The Small Business Manager suite costs US$995 for a single-user copy, and US$2495 for a multiuser package.

Upgrades from previous editions of Small Business Manager are available only to subscribers to Microsoft's foundation services plan, and are included as part of the US$275 annual base fee. Microsoft requires new licensees to also buy the plan for one year, because it includes training and support to get them started with the product, Engel says. Other support and service options are available through the plan for additional fees.

Unlike most Microsoft products, Small Business Manager 7.0 is not sold direct to customers. It is available only through its partners, which include consultants and other resellers, including some serving particular industries.

To tie the general accounting program more tightly to vertical industries, Microsoft has also released a Software Development Kit that provides tools to integrate standard industry-specific software into its Small Business Manager, Engel says. Among the vertical industries supported with integration to common programs are health care and nonprofits, she adds.

Plays With Office

This update emphasizes integration in several ways. The accounting modules can integrate with Word documents and other files created by Microsoft Office applications.

"Many partners in the accounting community seek tighter fiscal control. There's a cash flow calendar with built-in reminders," Engel says. The Small Business Manager is SQL-based, so it is complementary to Microsoft SQL Server and other Back Office applications. It also makes it easier for customers to migrate the data if they outgrow the small-business package, Engel notes.

Small Business Manager 7.0 can also integrate with Microsoft BCentral, a Web-based service with applications for small businesses. Engel says it integrates with several Web applications, notably the commerce manager, list builder (an e-mail marketing tool), and appointment manager (which provides a calendar and handles scheduling functions).

"The integration with Microsoft Office is fantastic," says Payson W. Peterson, senior manager with Skotty Consulting in Colorado Springs. "It takes the accounting system from being a totally separate unit to blend its functions into the rest of the office."

He says he suspects Microsoft picks up users who have outgrown their other accounting packages, or who want more functions and the integration with other programs.

"We see this as a great opportunity for a start-up business, or for a growing business that wants the scalability," Peterson adds. "They can get into Small Business Manager at a small price point and grow, and their tables and data entries are ready to grow too."

Other New Features

Skotty Consulting in the US began using Small Business Manager when Microsoft first shipped it last fall, and the company used the Great Plains predecessors before that. The new inventory functions in version 7 are appreciated, as is the capability to import transactions into general ledger operations, Peterson says.

Microsoft's service plan has also proved a good investment for his small consulting firm, which has about a dozen active clients. "It encourages people to stay current and take advantage of the Web site services," he says. Skotty Consulting relies on the Web site for technical support. Its own customers can also obtain custom information there.

The update also adds functions for managing distribution and operations, Engel says. Existing modules include support for financial, banking, inventory, sales, purchasing, and reporting and analysis functions.

The program is designed to support quotes, sales orders, invoices, statements, and payments, to meet the typical needs of small businesses. Small Business Manager 7.0 provides integrated purchase orders, item receipts, and payment processes.

The modules can integrate sales, purchasing, and financial tasks. Businesses can assign several prices to an item based on volume or other factors, track serial and lot numbers, run physical inventory checklists, and track costs and quantities.

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