Microsoft Ends bCentral and Unveils a New Small Business Portal
Five years after launching its bCentral portal for small business Microsoft is overhauling its online approach to the SMB market with a revised, updated Small Business Center site. bCentral never became the sole, authoritative source it was meant to be, and Microsoft is under increasing pressure to find growth opportunities, targeting the small-and-midsize markets through such software acquisitions as Great Plains and the subsequent introduction of the Microsoft CRM product. The new portal is seen as another step to capture and hold the minds and market share of smaller companies looking for a single-source provider for business IT.
Although Microsoft has launched server and application suites specifically targeted at the needs of small business, the company has not immediately announced or disclosed plans to expand the CRM functionality of the new Small Business Center beyond those already provided by bCentral. In addition to contact management and email campaign functionality, bCentral currently offers services like e-commerce and Web hosting. Current bCentral customers are being told to expect no interruption in services as the transition takes place.
Existing Microsoft small-business portal sites focus on advice and insight on building technology solutions to common business problems. While Microsoft has made promising moves in the entry-level CRM space through the introduction of Business Contact Manager in MS Office 2003, competitors in both the online and traditional CRM software market are not trembling yet. "Business Contact Manager is more robust than Outlook, but it's certainly not a CRM application, by any means," says Mika Krammer, Gartner research vice president.
If the new portal gains more traction than bCentral, expect the site to expand beyond a marketing focus into more aspects of business operations. For now, however, the move is largely a branding consolidation. "Lots of people have been trying to create small-business destination sites for years. I don't think this is going to change the world of small business portals, but I think this is the first step in changes necessary for Microsoft," Krammer says.
To date Microsoft has unveiled new small business portals to replace bCentral in Australia, Canada Japan, Spain, and the United Kingdom. Second-half 2004 launches are expected in France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and the United States.