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Microsoft's Juiced-Up Sarbanes-Oxley Tools

Microsoft is gearing up to unleash a new Office Accelerator, the latest in its line of the applications that customize Microsoft desktop applications for specific lines of business.

This time, the Office Accelerator is designed to help companies comply with the requirements of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.

The federal mandate requires public companies to certify and document their "internal controls" on financial reporting. Microsoft has previously announced that it would create the Sarbanes-Oxley components as part of its Office Accelerators initiative.

"We built a flexible and open platform," said Anders Brown, Microsoft's group product manager for its Information Worker New Markets group. "We expect that partners, including the Big Four accounting firms, will customize it for particular verticals or company types."

Announced on September 22, Office Accelerators are packages of software components, templates and sample architectures that let customers and integrators create custom applications.

Microsoft is a relative latecomer to the Sarbanes-Oxley compliance market. Since the regulation was passed and became law in 2002, software vendors have been licking their chops over the new revenue potential -- and bringing out products to aid compliance.

In July, Oracle unveiled its E-Business Suite 11i.9, saying it contained enhancements to address Sarbanes-Oxley reporting rules. On November 3, SAP announced it would integrate compliance tools with its mySAP Financials product by early 2004.

But the market is not quite as booming in some sectors as vendors hoped. While one study by the Enterprise Storage Group pegged the market for compliance-related storage products and services at $6 billion over the next 4 years, business intelligence vendors haven't yet gotten the bump they'd wished for. Now, the expectation is for a pick up in business next year -- just in time for Microsoft's release, slated for March of 2004. In addition, new aspects of compliance with the regulation will kick in next year.

"An awful lot of consultants and enterprise software providers are, if nothing else, getting an awful lot of inquiries," said Van Baker, an analyst with Gartner G2. "At this point of time, we're more in a consulting and exploration mode than a deployment mode, but deployment is likely to follow once companies get an understanding of the controls they need and what they need to do to implement them."

Baker said that while Microsoft's plug-in wasn't earth-shattering technology, it is fairly easy to deploy if a company already is running Office applications. It lets a company place controls within workflow processes, so that one step can't be completed if a previous required one has not.

When it's released in March 2004, Accelerator for Sarbanes Oxley will be the latest in Microsoft's Office Accelerator program. They include an Office 2003 Accelerator for proposal management, and an Office Accelerator that helps format financial documents in the XBRL format, using Excel 2003 for example.

Office Accelerators are provided free to customers that have Software Assurance licenses for the various applications engaged by each accelerator. For example, to use Office Solution Accelerator for Sarbanes-Oxley, a customer would need SA licenses for Windows SharePoint Services and Microsoft Office InfoPath 2003.

Microsoft has brought the accelerator theory to bear on other product lines, including BizTalk Server and SQL Server.

Accelerator for the Sarbanes-Oxley act by itself won't be enough to ensure a company's compliance with the rules, Baker said, "but it's a piece of the puzzle."

In related news, Microsoft Wednesday said its BizTalk Server 2004 platform will be offered in four editions: Enterprise, Standard, Partner and Developer. The pricing for these editions is on par with the 2002 version, with ERP Open B pricing starting at $25,000 CPU for the Enterprise Edition, $7,000 CPU for the Standard Edition, $1,000 CPU for the Partner Edition and $750 per user for the Developer Edition, which can be used for development and testing purposes only. All versions of BizTalk Server 2004 will include rights to Microsoft Visual Studio .NET 2003 and InfoPath for installation on a desktop. The company also said it has extended its support from four to nine languages.