RealTime IT News

Microsoft's Rolling SMB Thunder

SAN FRANCISCO -- A busload of gear running Microsoft software for small businesses rolled into town Thursday.

The bus is the show portion of Microsoft Across America, a peripatetic event designed to show off and explain the advantages of Microsoft products for small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs).

The events, taking place in more than 250 cities through June 2005, feature free, half-day seminars, plus the opportunity to talk to Microsoft partners and get hands-on demos.

"We're using this as a format to reach out and touch small and medium-sized customers who aren't necessarily called on directly by a publisher or large software integration firm, or that don't have their own internal IT staffs," said Jon Witty, area general manager of Microsoft's small business endeavors for Northern California.

At the same time, it's an opportunity to connect Microsoft partners -- the troops that do the actual selling -- to existing and potential customers, Witty said. A TechNet Briefing seminar for tech professionals was held at the same time.

"Microsoft is beginning to look after small businesses much more," said Konstantin Vilk, managing consultant for the 10-person Pleasanton, Calif. firm I-Span Services, which handles engagements from small companies as well as mid-sized corporations. "They've focused by delivering better products and platforms," Vilk said. Vilk was on hand to demonstrate software in the truck.

For example, Vilk pointed out that the graphical interfaces for Windows XP and Service Pack 2 make it easier for small business owners to administer their own machines.

Even small offices are benefiting from Windows SharePoint, Vilk said. "Every single one of our clients who's purchased Small business Server 2003 is using Windows SharePoint Services to manage their documents."

Dane Bigham, another Microsoft Partner staffing the truck, is general manager of Forte systems, a 16-person integration firm based in Richmond, Calif. Bigham said his SMB customers respond well to the $600 price tag on Microsoft Small Business Server 2003.

"The earlier versions [of the server software] weren't as well-known, and I don't think they were that cheap," Bigham said, adding that even $1,000 is a lot of money to his customers.

Yet Bigham said the SMBs he works with aren't interested in Linux server software, despite its lack of a license fee. While some small business owners who are computer enthusiasts have used it, he said, "most SMBs don't even ask about it."

In San Francisco, the morning began with a presentation on basic computer maintenance, stressing the importance of keeping software patches up-to-date. A walk-through of changes Microsoft has made to improve security was followed by a demonstration of Microsoft Security Center.

Although his specialty is helping small businesses develop a Web presence, Bennett Fonacier, a Web developer with Tri Valley Web in San Ramon, Calif., said he's getting a lot of security-related calls from SMBs. Fonacier said he finds the Microsoft Partner Program useful for increasing his expertise and differentiating himself from the competition. After exploring the opportunities for providing CRM capabilities, he plans to focus on SharePoint integration. "There'd a lot more demand for that," he said.

Microsoft Across America is reaching out to a growing market. Research firm IDC expects SMB expenditures on software to grow 9 percent through 2008, while the number of PCs per business will average 6.9 percent.

The seven trucks on the tour feature HP Tablet PCs, notebooks and desktops, variously enabled with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth . The computers are loaded with SMB-specific software, including Microsoft Small Business Edition 2003 and Microsoft Business Solutions Retail Management System. The vehicles also are equipped with HP ProLiant servers running Microsoft Small Business Server 2003.

Microsoft's Witty said the rolling seminar series is a way to "make it real" to small business owners, who often want "a drop-in solution" to their computing needs, as well as a way to "set up the date" between partners and potential customers.