That's changing ... slowly. The Internet has been a big boon to small businesses, by making available some of the data sharing and collaboration tools that have long been a part of the corporate landscape.
Two recent moves by a pair of the biggest names in small business software -- Intuit and Microsoft -- have me excited.
Intuit's finally opening its market-leading accounting package, QuickBooks, to other applications. And Microsoft is integrating the next edition of Office with online collaboration tools that have previously been available only to tech-savvy firms that know how to create complex intranets.
Neither development is in effect now, but both will have an impact on how small businesses manage their back office in 2001. I'm a big fan of Intuit's QuickBooks. I've used it since 1992 to crank out invoices, monitor my accounts receivables, and churn out Excel charts and graphs that compare current to past billings. Three million other businesses use QuickBooks, too. That market power, and the fact that accounting gets a tremendous boost from computerization, has me watching Intuit's latest effort closely.
To capitalize on its position of strength, Intuit announced last month that it plans to open QuickBooks' APIs (application programming interfaces) to third-party developers so they can integrate their applications with this accounting powerhouse.
This is a big deal for small businesses. Until now, other applications that might benefit from mining QuickBooks' data -- from e-commerce shopping carts and point-of-sale software to employee benefit packages and business planning programs -- have been strictly outsiders. The result? We've had to re-enter data manually that already existed in electronic form. Without a link between a Web shopping site and QuickBooks, for instance, we've been forced to re-enter e-store sales data into our accounting software.
Small businesses don't have the technical know-how, time, or funds to create a soup-to-nuts integrated system of software, where data's entered only once, then shared among applications. That will change as third-party programs gain access to QuickBooks data. Among the foreseeable solutions:
Point-of-sale software that links directly with QuickBooks so all cash-register data is dropped into accounting automatically.
Vertical-market software for industries as varied as property management and construction. Detailed project estimating, a crucial part of the home building process, could tie in with QuickBooks own job costing, and deliver estimates based on materials pricing already in the accounting software.
E-store shopping carts that automatically debit inventory in as goods are sold.
This integration won't be available until developers have the APIs in hand and time to create links to the next edition of QuickBooks from their apps. Expect to see this happen later this year or early next.
Until then, you can read more about QuickBooks' semi-open source plans at the Intuit Developer Network Web site. The most concise explanation there for lay people (as opposed to developers) is the "Introducing qbXML" document, in Adobe Portal Document Format. (Get the free Adobe Acrobat Reader at ZDNet Downloads.)
But QuickBooks' future is just the first of two developments to watch this year. Second on my list: the one new feature in the upcoming Office XP that I think makes it a compelling upgrade for many small businesses. Before the Internet, getting a team together required travel time--or for virtual meetings, dedicated conferencing software and major capital. Now, online collaboration sites let small businesses share everything from documents and calendars to announcements and long-term discussions. Some sites, like Intranets.com, are even free.
Even Microsoft's in on the action. Office XP, the next version of its Office productivity suite (due out by summer), includes SharePoint Team Services, which tie all its applications to an online collaboration site that can be either out-sourced to an ISP, or hosted internally if you have a server on the premises. From within Office XP's applications, you'll be able to create a SharePoint site from a stock template, save and retrieve documents to and from the shared space online, hold discussions (including Web Discussions, a capability which debuted in Office 2000), and share contacts.
If this sounds familiar, it should-- SharePoint offers much the same set of services as Web-based intranets like Intranets.com, and the now-defunct HotOffice. But the difference is that these services are available within Office, which is the primary software for most small businesses. That means you can save documents to the shared site, where others can view, edit, or download them, from within Word and Excel. Secondly, you can host this suite of shared services on your own server, if you want to.
For more information about what it'll take to host SharePoint on your server, steer to the SharePoint Portal Server 2001 page on Microsoft's site.
Businesses that don't have a server in-house won't be left high and dry, however. Your ISP may choose to support SharePoint, which is actually a superset of the FrontPage server extensions, something many ISPs already support -- which means your ISP will be able to host your company's SharePoint site (probably for a fee, but that's unclear at the moment). Microsoft has not announced a list of participating ISPs, but likely will as the release of Office XP nears. I'm betting that the big national ISPs, like Earthlink and AT&T, will be among the providers that support SharePoint.
Pay close attention to both these moves. If you're already using QuickBooks and plan to upgrade to Microsoft Office XP, these developments have the potential to dramatically boost your productivity.