Microsoft Corp. continued its effort Monday to recruit new small business partners to use its Web software and services, unveiling a tool for its FrontPage software which the software maker said will enable developers to add simple and low cost e-commerce functions to a Web site.
Showing early signs of what is yet to come in Microsoft's planned evolution of the Internet through its .NET initiative, the company made available a free FrontPage add-in download that enables a Web site to link directly to Microsoft's bCentral Commerce Manager, a managed services provider for small business users.
Web sites developed using the tools will be able to link the front end of a Web page to inventory databases, customer information, credit card processing and other functions necessary to sell products and services on the Internet. The new service is a low-end alternative to a number of similar products to be developed by third-party vendors, including Boomerang Software Inc. and LaGarde Software Inc.
"Generally speaking, FrontPage has a large contingency of small business users," said Kelly Weadock, product manager for FrontPage. "Adding e-commerce functionality is definitely a function that small businesses require."
While FrontPage is geared toward the low end of Web page design -- void of many of the complex development tools available in products such as Macromedia Inc.'s Dreamweaver -- adding more expansive e-commerce development tools to the program serves two purposes for Microsoft, according to Lou Latham, a research analyst with Gartner Group Inc.
The first is its ease of use. The software is basically e-commerce in a box, allowing novice Web site builders and small businesses that don't use a Web site for high-volume transactions to have some of the functions of larger e-commerce sites, including security, a fast roll out and reliability.
"It also can be a sort of a painless beta for Microsoft," said Latham, who follows the multimedia development market. "FrontPage serves a population that really isn't going to have a lot of problems if it doesn't work right, and it gives Microsoft a way to work out some of the issues with a population that doesn't have much at stake."
What Latham expects to come from this early-stage announcement is a look at the large-scale, Web-based software and services that Microsoft plans to roll out over the next two years.
"This add-in is basically one more step towards the .NET initiative," said Weadock. "bCentral already has a lot of Web services and FrontPage has software applications."
The highly anticipated .NET, basically an operating system for providing services on the Web, will continue combining Microsoft's software and Web services, Weadock said.
Users who use the Commerce Manager add-in will be required to sign up for Microsoft's bCentral Commerce Manager Service. For a monthly fee, users can have access to a number of back-end tools and services needed for setting up a business on the Internet, such as order management. A basic package is available for US$12.95 per month. A more advanced e-commerce package, including links to online auctions and credit card processing services, is available for $24.95 per month. Microsoft is also offering three months free subscription to bCentral for a limited time.
The Commerce Manager add-in is compatible with the latest version of FrontPage, which was released in June 1999, and will also work with FrontPage 2002, which is due to reach consumers in late May, Microsoft said.