Microsoft Australia has launched the Australian Web site for its bCentral strategy, but has decided to skip the Web hosting and catalogue services offered by the US parent and concentrate on the development of Web services.
In the US, the initial bCentral strategy consisted of a range of ASP services offering Web hosting, on-line catalogues, Web marketing tools and on-line accounting software.
Whereas two years ago Microsoft Australia planned its bCentral site to offer localised versions of these services, it has since decided to direct enquiries for these services straight to the US site and concentrate on offering the next generation of Web services instead.
"There will be no Australian iteration of the services currently offered on the US site," said Microsoft Australia group manager for bCentral, Catherine Reynolds. "Things like Web hosting and catalogues are not the killer apps for small business. What [small businesses] are after is a seamless Internet experience that connects their desktop applications to the Web."
The typical small business profile, according to Reynolds, is based on [Microsoft] Office and Outlook, with a majority using MYOB or Quickbooks accounting software and a small minority using simple CRM tools. She believes small businesses will be coaxed into using Web services, and thus coaxed into upgrading to Windows XP, when their suppliers convince them the only way they will transact in the future is on-line.
"If you put the .NET vision in front of small businesses, they wouldn't know what you were talking about," she said. "They'd just tell you they don't need it. But if suppliers won't take paper orders any more, small businesses will have to transact on-line. When XP is bundled with these Web services, the benefit of the upgrade will be enormous."
The bCentral.com.au site is built purely on XML, and is intended to be the Web Services' destination for small businesses. As yet the site only includes one simple Web service, name Small Business Librarian, which connects into a number of business content sites to provide information resources for small businesses.
Users can ask any question relevant to Australian small businesses (be it about Business Activity Statements or human resources procedures etc.), and the service searches through the Web sites Microsoft's content provider partners to find the answer. In its simplest form, this Web service is a search engine focused on the small business market, but Reynolds promises future Web services will be much more sophisticated, and be linked into XP products on the desktop.
Microsoft Australia is currently developing its Web services folio, including a supplier enablement service, and a UDDI (Universal Discovery, Description and Integration) service in conjunction with vertical partners. This service will kick into action on consumer portal sites such as ninemsn, where the UDDI directory (an XML based yellow pages' on the web) will be utilised to direct consumers to the most appropriate local business when seeking products or advice on the Internet.
Reynolds said services like the UDDI will be offered to businesses free of charge in order to lift the concept of Web services off the ground. It will also encourage suppliers to transact electronically, thereby putting pressure on small businesses to upgrade to XP products.
"It's an investment in the .NET concept," she said. "This whole thing won't fly without critical mass. So while the base listing in UDDI will be free, there will be more advanced services that will come at a charge."
Reynolds said a separate team within Microsoft is currently encouraging third party developers to develop new Web services to encourage the necessary critical mass. With new Web services constantly under development, Reynolds said Windows XP should have a longer shelf life.