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Try before you buy

Whether you sell a product, a service, or a combination of both, those who are successful have one thing in common: an efficient back office.

Whether you sell a product, a service, or a combination of both, those who are successful have one thing in common: an efficient back office.

But the cost of an efficient office has meant using complex accounting and order-entry programs that are hard to learn and can require a computer expert to network many machines together.

The software companies have not been standing still during the past two years. They have heard their customers complain and many of them are now coming out with what is often termed Webware, or Web services.

Web services are simply distributed applications that run on a Web server but can be accessed via the Internet. They were first made popular by such online stock brokers as Ameritrade. The concept spread to banking, then to payroll services like PayCycle, and now all the major order-entry, billing, reporting, and financial functions of the office can be done online via Web services.

Instead of buying or downloading a large and complex software package that’s not only difficult to install but difficult to learn, vendors are now offering online services that the user simply subscribes to and pays for monthly, the same way one would pay an ISP or cable bill.

While programs like QuickBooks and Great Plains won’t disappear, a lot of small and medium-size business are switching to Webware.

The advantages of these services are numerous. There’s nothing to buy, so you don’t end up paying for something from which you might not get the maximum use. Second, there is nothing to install because all you do is access the software on the Web using your browser. Third, you can run Webware on any kind of computer you wish, as long as it has a browser–some services even run on a Palm Pilot-like device. Fourth, there is nothing to back up and no crashes to worry about. Fifth, you are not tied to any one machine–you can run your business from anywhere in the world.

The word security comes up all the time. But some maintain that there is more hype than fact when it comes to Internet security. A well-maintained, locked-down server that runs software designed to be a Web service is just as secure or more secure than its counterpart on the office desktop, equipment that is easily compromised by any employee who has access to it.

As for the issue of up time, how often has your desktop PC crashed compared to your Internet connection going down, or your ISP’s server not being available? For most businesses, the answer is obvious.

People have been doing their banking online for years. Same with payroll and taxes. There are no known breaches. The back-office order-entry and inventory processes are simply a logical extension of what has been going on in other sectors.

Should you switch? The answer depends on a number of factors. If you have tens of thousands of customers, you are probably better off with a traditional desktop, multi-user, network system like QuickBooks or Great Plains. However, smaller businesses, especially those on a budget, may find back-office Webware to be very attractive.

Also, if you have remote offices or if you have vendors (like fulfillment houses) that might need access to your data, Web services are the way to go. You can buy a read-only account that outside vendors (or employees) can use anywhere in the world to view data, but it won’t allow them to change anything. Large firms have virtual private networks to do all of this. The small-business sector will now have a similar advantage. The Web is the network.

One of the best things about Webware is that you can truly try before you buy, without having to download and install anything. The demo that you use on the vendor’s Web site is the same system that you will use for real when you decide to buy your own copy of the application in question.

A lot of business people don’t use the latest software products (or they don’t update the software they have) because they fear they will have trouble installing it or learning how to use the new system. One of the advantages of Webware is that everyone knows how to use a Web browser. Well-designed Webware is intuitive by nature, just like the Web. There is a minimal learning curve.

There is no underestimating what a well-oiled office infrastructure can do for your business. Being able to take orders, create invoices, account for the money, keep track of customers, do your taxes, and create reports to show you how you are doing are invaluable assets to anyone running a small business. With Webware, it finally gets easier.

Alan Canton is the president of Adams-Blake Company Inc. of Fair Oaks, Calif. The company provides the JAYA123 back-office web service. >www.jaya123.com

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