A start-up plans to use the Web to create an updated version of the old mainframe-based service bureau, in this case for accounting applications.

Instead of selling its server-based general accounting software, application service provider Intacct Corp. is letting midsize companies rent the software for as little as US$50 per month. Customers access the service from a Web browser over a standard Internet link. What’s different here is the way Intacct also is courting software and consulting partners, which will link their applications to the Intacct accounting programs.

“They’re offering a horizontal accounting service and publishing APIs to encourage vendors with expertise in particular vertical markets to participate,” says Harry Fenik, executive vice-president at Zona Research, a Redwood City, Calif., market research company.

The focus on multiple vertical markets is key, Intacct executives say.

“One vendor simply cannot create all the accounting functions itself,” founder and CEO David Thomas says. His idea is to make Intacct a “financial hub” for a growing array of Web services aimed at particular types of businesses, such as doctors’ offices, law firms and machine tool companies.

The newly minted Intacct is stepping into a market in which more than 100 accounting software vendors already ply their wares. But Thomas says customers will be drawn by the fact that Intacct’s software is accessible via the Web and requires only a low monthly fee.

The software runs on Unix servers hosted by network service provider Verio. Within Verio’s facility, Intacct created a separate “vault” protected by a Cisco Systems Inc. firewall. Load-balancing software will spread traffic over an array of Intacct-built Web application servers, which are linked via Cisco switches to Unix servers running an Oracle8i database. Customers only need a Java-enabled Web browser, proper clearance and a password to access accounting information.

A key challenge was designing a user interface that was responsive and interactive, mimicking the features found in Windows applications. Besides the familiar on-line help, Intacct will use the services of Livehelp.com, a Web site that lets a user connect with an expert through interactive chat.

The Intacct service is available starting this week. Pricing starts at US$50 per month for two users. Blocks of five additional users can be added for US$20 per month. Companies can try Intacct free for 90 days.

Intacct can be reached at www.intacct.com.