MapPoint: Microsoft's secret weapon for small biz

Good business is all about geography: sales territory, customer addresses, store location, and so forth -- which is why Microsoft's MapPoint is an ingenious way to improve how your business performs.

One of the most important things a computer can do is give small businesses the same tools that benefit corporate giants, but in easy-to-use and affordable packages. Today, I want to introduce you to a program that could become your secret weapon--one that most small-to-medium sized businesses need, yet hardly anyone seems to know about.

Surprisingly, this is a Microsoft application, perhaps the least-known member of the Office XP family. I am describing Microsoft MapPoint 2002, a program that displays data on geographic maps.

This allows you to visualize customer distribution, regional sales performance, the competitive landscape, and other business trends that just don't show up in a spreadsheet or data table. If you ever have to deal with a list of locations or need to manipulate data on any sort of geographic basis, this is the program you need.

Here are some of the projects I've used to test MapPoint while researching this column.


Finding addresses and planning the optimal route for deliveries or sales calls.
To do this, first enter all the places you need to go; MapPoint arranges them in the most efficient order and provides directions between the stops. And, yes, you get maps.

Evaluating regional sales and creating territories. MapPoint offers nine different map types, including pie charts, shaded area maps, and pushpin maps. There's also a wizard to help create territories.

Targeting direct mail (e-mail, actually). How? You can use MapPoint to find everyone in a database who lives within a certain number of miles of a particular location. To do this, I imported an address list into MapPoint, defined a circle around the location, and exported the addresses that fell inside the circle.

Creating a time/distance map. Say you want to know how far you could drive from your office in a given length of time. You can figure this by using a built-in feature of the program, and though I have some accuracy concerns--how can variable San Francisco traffic be figured in?--this map is an excellent starting point.

Using GPS to pinpoint a location. I used a GPS system to show my location on a MapPoint map. I exported maps for use on my PocketPC, allowing me to search for locations and see the places I've marked with pushpins on my PDA.

Mapping an address mentioned in a document. You can use a MapPoint SmartTag in Microsoft Word to quickly find the location of an address in a document--and then import a map of that location into the document itself.

Creating a map within a spreadsheet. In Excel, I used MapPoint to automatically create a map showing a series of locations I had entered.
That's just some of what MapPoint does. MapPoint 2002 is not the first version of the program, nor is this the first desktop program to provide these features. I think I saw my first desktop data-mapping program five or six years ago, and there were big enterprise applications long before that.

What makes MapPoint 2002 stand out, however, is its tight integration with Microsoft Office XP and, to a significantly lesser extent, Office 2000. In XP, thanks to SmartTags, MapPoint almost becomes an extension of Word and Excel, ready to produce maps on demand.

The route optimization feature makes MapPoint a supercharged version of consumer mapping and travel programs. In fact, if you're familiar with Microsoft's Streets and Trips, you already know the look-and-feel of MapPoint 2002.

IF THE BEST THING about MapPoint is how tightly it's integrated with Office, then the worst has to be the price: over US$200 a copy. That's not all that expensive for a program you won't put on every desktop and which can easily save you time and money--and help improve your decision-making.

On the other hand, MapPoint isn't in any of the Office XP bundles and costs more than some of the upgrade bundles themselves. Look at it that way, and MapPoint seems about US$100 too expensive.

Of course, the first time the program helps a presentation make sense, or saves postage by better targeting a mailing, or cuts your gasoline costs and travel times, $100 doesn't seem like so much money after all. If locations and geography play a part in your business, I think you'll find MapPoint 2002 a valuable addition to your software toolbox.

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