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A Microsoft marketing manager says the company had to speed up the launch of a new Web-based software service in Canada because so many businesses were already using the American offering, but a software analyst doesn’t see what the fuss is about.

Microsoft Canada has announced the launch of bCentral.ca, a delivery mechanism for an integrated suite of Web-based software services designed to help small businesses tackle day-to-day processes. The Canadian site includes a banner exchange network, tools that help businesses get listed on search engines, e-mail and calendar functions and tools to build professional looking business Web sites with additional features to conduct online sales and services.

Rahul Sharma, Microsoft Marketing Manager for bCentral in Canada said the suite offers two things to small business owners in this country.

“The first thing is that we have a Web site, which is focused and targeted toward small businesses where they can get a bunch of free articles and tips and how-tos and so on,” he said. “We also have a Web-based database where you can find out if trademarks or company names have been registered in a bunch of different provinces. The big part is Web-based software solutions, which are incremental so that people can layer it with Microsoft.”

He continued that it is an ASP model that allows businesses to rent software on a monthly or annual basis, “rather than spending a bunch of money on paying for all the software.” Additionally, the products are scaleable.

“We have a program called list builder that allows you to do e-mail marketing with your customers and you pay a higher rate if you want more features,” he said. “The pricing can vary substantially, by what the customer needs.’

The lowest price product usually starts in the ballpark of US$20 a month, he said, and will go as high as US$1,000.

Sharma’s target market is small businesses, with five to 20 employees, like Calgary-based Alternative Transportation Co-op. John Abraham, the president, uses bCentral.ca to allow car users to book one of the two vehicles available. That means he didn’t have to hire additional staff to book appointments. Hiring additional staff, he said, would have been a major, and possibly prohibitive, cost to the company.

“All of our members have keys to the cars and they just go and book time on the bCentral,” he said. “We started with one car and we have used bCentral for about a year.”

He continued that, at first, he had problems because people were booking cars last minute and the bCentral is not usually applied that way. However, he called the company and had some adjustments made, and now it works well.

“The way it was set up, it allowed us to start smaller, which we needed.” Abraham said.

bCentral, which was originally launched in the United States in 1999, delivers subscription-based services which small businesses use to create and manage their Web presence and marketing and respond faster to customers.

But Dr. Alex Ferworn, professor of computer science at Ryerson University in Toronto, has some doubts about the offering.

“They are collecting statistics off your Web site,” he said. “They are doing it with your permission, too, when you clicked.”

What’s more, Ferworn said he didn’t know what use this is right now, especially seeing that Microsoft is far from the only company offering this service.

“e-Scotia does something similar, they let you set up a storefront and the idea is that you run your business, make some money and hopefully do the business through them,” he said. “Many people have attempted to help you attempt (to help) yourself.”

He added that some of the services, like getting on a search engine, are not very hard to do yourself.

“If I was going to run my own business, presumably I would have enough money to run my own site,” he said.

Sharma said bCentral has grown every month since the launch in June and has exceeded the expectations on subscription members.

“Our typical customer is someone who wants to grow the business quickly, some use the term mountain climber, the people who are very aspirational and take risks,” Sharma said. “Our customer views technology as strategic to their business and the sectors that we typically match up with well are retail and professional services.”

However, he added, there have been challenges along the way.

“I think when the business was launched, we had a set of assumptions around a bunch of things,” he said. “Over the last couple of years there has been a bit of a shake out in the market place – there are fewer players. Adoption rates are still slow and the broadband penetration is excellent in Canada, but it probably isn’t where we thought broadband would be. As a result, the business is growing slower, but that means we have more time to get it right.”

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