Microsoft preps support network for new accounting app

Microsoft added more detail Monday on its Office Small Business Accounting launch plans, including revealing the product's planned $200 retail price.

Microsoft is paving the way for its September release of a new small-business accounting application by putting together a host of networking and support services targeted at accountants, including the new Microsoft Professional Accountants Network it will launch within the next three months.

Microsoft is also developing a presence at accounting industry events, starting with the New Jersey Accounting, Business and Technology Show taking place this week in Secaucus, New Jersey. Microsoft plans to preview its upcoming Microsoft Office Small Business Accounting 2006 software at the conference.

The new product will take Microsoft into a market currently dominated by Intuit's QuickBooks accounting software. IDC ranks Intuit as the second-largest vendor of accounting and financial management software, behind SAP. But while SAP's forte is large ERP (enterprise resource planning) systems, QuickBooks targets the low-end market of businesses with up to a few dozen employees -- the segment Microsoft would like to penetrate with Office Small Business Accounting.

Microsoft revealed on Monday its intended US$200 retail price tag for the software's stand-alone edition. Office Small Business Accounting will also be available as part of the Microsoft Office Small Business Management Edition 2006 bundle, which will include Microsoft's Business Contact Manager Update as well as its 2003 editions of Outlook, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Publisher and Access. Pricing for the bundle has not yet been announced.

To generate interest in the new software Microsoft is creating the Microsoft Professional Accountants Network, a program that will offer technical support, continuing-education training classes and networking resources aimed at certified public accountants (CPAs). The Accountants Network will have two membership tiers, a free level and a US$300-per-year program offering additional technical support and free access to various Microsoft products and services.

Microsoft is also offering CPAs free copies of its new software in hopes they'll adopt the application and recommend it to clients. Accountants can sign up on Microsoft's Web site for a free prerelease version of Office Small Business Accounting, which Microsoft U.S. Small Business Group General Manager Cindy Bates said is now shipping. The prerelease version is a full edition of the software with no limitations or expiration date, she said.

One partner working with Microsoft, BQE Software Chief Executive Officer Shafat Qazi, said he expects Office Small Business Accounting to win over customers currently making due with Excel spreadsheets to handle their accounting.

"I think this will appeal to people who don't typically use any of the accounting products now, people who feel like they're not trained enough to use applications like QuickBooks without an accountant by their side," Qazi said. "The Office-like interface will be very attractive."

Qazi's Los Angeles-based company makes billing and project-management software. BQE Software has been an Intuit partner for several years, and its flagship product, BillQuick, integrates with QuickBooks. The newest version will also integrate with Microsoft's accounting software, Qazi said. In the 15 months BQE has been working with Microsoft on the developing Office Small Business Accounting software, its feedback to Microsoft has emphasized the importance of integration.

"People are no longer comfortable with import/export. They want behind-the-scenes integration," Qazi said. "It was critical for us that integration be as seamless as possible, so that the end user doesn't feel like they're working with two products."

Microsoft's Office Small Business Accounting is scheduled for a September release in the U.S., with international editions coming later on a yet-to-be-determined schedule, according to Microsoft's Bates. To smooth the new software's launch, Microsoft is striking alliances and sponsorship deals with influential accounting-industry vendors, such as training organizer K2 Enterprises. It has also teamed with Automatic Data Processing Inc., which will integrate two of its small-business payroll services with Microsoft's accounting software.