Products of the Year: The Winners Are ...

Tuesday Jan 20th 2004 by SmallBusinessComputing.com Staff
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What products and services had the greatest impact on small businesses in 2003? The readers of Small Business Computing.com, E-Commerce Guide, and Webopedia pick the best hardware, software and services.

We asked you to tell us what products best helped you keep your small business running efficiently and profitably. While there were a few surprises along the way, the consistent theme spanning the 18 categories in the Small Business Computing Excellence in Technology Awards is that the same hardware, software, and service providers that have become technology staples at larger companies have tailored their wares to work for your operation. That is, the big boys have proven that they have taken the time to get to know how small businesses operate.

E-Commerce/Web Management
The race for top spot in the Small Business Computing Excellence in Technology Award for Hosting Provider/Site Building tool ended in a three-way photo finish, with eBay nosing out Nexternal and Yahoo! Merchant Solutions by single-digit margins. eBay, which garnered 38 percent of the votes, is a popular destination for small business e-tailers to hawk their wares, as it allows merchants access to millions of registered users.

The auction behemoth caters to SMBs, offering services such as eBay Stores, which allows sellers to develop customized storefronts, enlist in a directory that helps drive traffic, and access its Business Marketplace, where merchants can interact with each other in a B2B environment. The fees for a basic store begin at $9.95 a month — a deal not even the most frugal merchants can afford to pass up. (Read our case study.)

Macromedia Dreamweaver MX 2004 took top honors in Small Business Computing Excellence in Technology Award in the Design Tool/HTML Editor category. The overwhelming favorite took in 55 percent of the vote, solidifying Dreamweaver's position as favorite among professional e-commerce site designers. In its most recent release, Dreamweaver made some strong improvements including easier-to-use cascading stylesheets, better integration with Word and Excel, a built-in graphics editor, and a streamlined interface. (Read our review.)

The Small Business Computing Excellence in Technology Award for Site Building Tool goes to LaGarde StoreFront, which raked in 56 percent of the votes. StoreFront includes just about everything a small business merchant would want for creating and maintaining an e-commerce site, such as multiple payment options, integration with most major merchant account and gateway service providers, and number of marketing and promotion options. (Read our review.)

Having a great Web site is one thing. Having a great Web-based business is quite another. Knowing how your visitors are using your e-commerce site is where analytics comes in. The award for best Marketing or Analysis Product/Service ended in a dead heat, with ClickTracks 4.0 and WebTrends Reporting Center 6.1 sharing the top position. Each scooped up approximately 40 percent of votes, making it too close to call. Both ClickTracks and WebTrends offer on-site software that relies on Web logs for traffic analysis, and hosted Web-based services, which allows small businesses to track online activity in real time — an important feature for staying one step ahead of your competition. (Read our case study.)

Providing cost-effective customer support is a key for a profitable e-commerce. The company best providing that service is LivePerson Pro, which wins top honors for Customer Support or Service category. LivePerson took in an impressive 55 percent of readers' votes. The popularity of LivePerson, a customer relationship management (CRM) tool that allows live operators to interact with Web shoppers in real time, demonstrates the demand by consumers for virtual storefronts to act and feel like a brick-and-mortar business. (Read our case study.)

Making a strong showing was runner-up LiveOffice with 35 percent of the vote. LiveOffice also offers chat (or instant messaging-based) online help.

Small Business Software
Garnishing more votes than any other product in any other category, the Microsoft Office System for Small Business wins the Small Business Computing Excellence in Technology Award for Productivity Software. With 62 percent of the vote, Microsoft is still the standard-bearer for small business productivity software. The Microsoft Office System Small Business Edition comes with Word, Excel, Outlook, and Publisher, as well as PowerPoint and Business Contact Manager — a new add-in that gives Outlook some of the account- and sales-tracking capability that is ideal for smaller sales oriented organizations. (Read our review.)

However, an upstart open-source productivity suite also made a strong showing this year among our readers. Twenty percent of our readers proclaimed OpenOffice 1.1 as the top small business productivity suite, which just goes to show that smaller companies are also open to the idea of Linux on the desktop. Available for free to Windows, Linux, and Mac users, all the open-source community asks is that programmers pass along any improvements they make to the source code. (Read our review.)

When it comes to back-office operations, make no mistake about it, small businesses love their QuickBooks. The 2004 version of QuickBooks Pro receives top honors with 61 percent of the vote, making Intuit the winner of the Small Business Computing Excellence in Technology Award for Accounting/Finance Software. The QuickBooks family of accounting programs serve a small business well and the 2004 version of QuickBooks Pro is the finest version yet. (Read our review.)

Intuit's winning streak carried over into a second category of small business software specifically tailored for vertical market applications. QuickBooks 2004 Professional Services Premier wins the Small Business Computing Excellence in Technology Award for Vertical Market Applications with nearly 66 percent of the popular vote. For professional services that focus more on billable hours rather than inventoried goods and costs of materials, QuickBooks Professional Services Premier is just the ticket. Intuit also offers vertical flavors for the retail and manufacturing and wholesale industries. (Read our review.)

The Small Business Computing Excellence in Technology Award for Graphics/Multimedia Software goes to Adobe Acrobat 6.0 Professional. With nearly 60 percent of the popular vote, it's apparent that small businesses prefer Adobe for distributing, reviewing, and archiving portable document files. Acrobat 6.0 Professional supports the creation of electronic forms and more sophisticated e-mail and browser-based team reviews, as well as making PDF files from Microsoft Project and Visio and from AutoCAD. It adds enhanced tools for printing, viewing, and navigating large-format documents; using layers in technical drawings; and taking advantage of preflight and color separation features for professional printing, including the PDF/X standard for photo-ready, high-end color materials. (Read our review.)

PC security, firewall and anti-virus software maker Symantec takes top honors this year as the winner of the Small Business Computing Excellence in Technology Award for Security Software. Norton Internet Security 2004 received 57 percent of the vote for the readers, surpassing the McAfee Active Client Security Suite from Network Associates by more than 35 percent. Symantec's Norton Internet Security 2004 is a well-integrated suite with anti-virus, personal firewall, intrusion detection, privacy control, parental control and anti-spam components — which allows small businesses to enable or disable as needed. Flexible, yet secure, strikes the right chord with many small businesses. (Read our review.)

Small Business Communication Services
Even though BellSouth has clearly been one of the more proactive carriers when it comes to developing communication services specifically for small businesses, its footprint is the smallest of the three service providers nominated for this year's award. The Small Business Computing Excellence in Technology Award for Wireless Services goes to AT&T Wireless with 47 percent of the popular vote. With competitive pricing and high-quality mobile communications services, AT&T Wireless is a popular choice for many U.S. small businesses. (Read about How to Pick the Right Wireless Plan.)

The award for Internet Services goes to SBC Yahoo! DSL. The dynamic marketing duo has enhanced their collective suite of Internet connectivity services designed for small business to include access to customized business portals, online marketing services and improved security options — making SBC Yahoo! DSL the broadband service provider of choice for many small businesses. (Read why Broadband is an Equalizing Force for Small Business Startups.)

Hardware
When it comes to the hardware that drives small businesses, one theme became clear. Dell holds the hearts and minds of small businesses. In our six hardware categories, the Texas-based hardware vendor grabbed three awards — in fact, Dell won every category in which it was nominated, knocking off Apple, HP, IBM and others along the way.

In the notebook category, the Dell Latitude D600 won one of the closest races in our awards voting, capturing 34 percent of the vote. The 1.7 GHz Pentium M process-based notebooks edged Apple's PowerBook G4. The portable Mac comes configured with either 12-inch, 15-inch, and 17-inch display with prices starting at $1,600. While Apple didn't win the notebook category, its strong showing given Apple's overall marketshare shows the stylish, affordable, WiFi-ready G4 PowerBooks has appeal. For the typical small business, though, Dell's offering left competitors in its wake.

When it comes to desktop PCs, our readers delivered the same 1-2 voting results with the Dell Dimension 4600C taking 52 percent of the vote and Apple's Power Mac G5 following with 25 percent. In his review, Eric Grevstad described the PC as "a stylish space-saver." No, it wasn't talking about the G5, but the award-winning Dell Dimension. The Pentium 4-based system boasts a flat-panel display. Of course, PCs don't succeed on looks alone and the 3.0 GHz Hyper-Threading system has plenty of power under the hood. In addition to its CPU power, it also offers abundant storage and a healthy supply of bundled software. (Read our review)

2003 was a big year for network-based computing at small businesses, thanks to the release of Microsoft Small Business Server 2003, which brings the efficiency of server-based e-mail, databases, security, and network-management tools to small businesses.

It was also a good year for the Dell PowerEdge 400SCs, which took its third Small Business Computing Excellence in Technology Award with a decisive 53 percent of the vote. The Dell PowerEdge 400SC, one of several servers from big-name vendors to shipped with the Microsoft's new small business-focused network operating system, took honors for best Server/Networking product. Gateway and HP also released servers for SMBs and earned their way onto the list of finalist, earning 23 percent and 10 percent of the vote, respectively. (Read about small business servers)

When it comes to printers, the landscape was awash with surprisingly affordable color laser printers — technology that cost thousands of dollars a few years dropped to the $700-$800 range in 2003. Even though, you could argue that 2003 was the year of low-cost laser color, our readers were a bit more cost-conscious in selecting the winner in the Printer Category — the HP LaserJet 1012 black and white laser printer. The newest from HP boasts 600 dpi output, a 150-sheet paper tray (many printers in this price range require you to feed paper through a vertical slot like you would find with an inkjet printer). While there's nothing revolutionary about the 1012, its price-performance ratio earned it a dominant 59 percent of vote. (Read our review.)

Following distantly were the Xerox Phaser 6250 with 18 percent, the Lexmark E323 (15 percent), and the Minolta-QMS Magicolor 2300DW (8 percent).

HP's dominance continued in the multifunction device category as the HP PSC 1210 All-in-One took 52 percent of the vote. These hybrid devices combine scanner/copier/printer in one compact unit — which sell for low as $150 (as is the case with our winner). While $150 doesn't break any price barrier, reviewer Eric Grevstad described HP PSC 1210 as "the smallest, cutest all-in-one yet — with its front paper tray closed, it looks for all the world like a breadbox or toaster oven." (Read our review.)

Our reviewers also liked the two other finalists in the this category, the Lexmark X6170 (though it notched just 18 percent of your vote — read our Review) and the Canon MultiPass MP730 (30 percent). However, judging by your votes, small and less-expensive is a tough combination to beat — especially when that combination comes from HP.

When it comes to backing up data, it doesn't get much simpler than the Maxtor OneTouch. And, based on your votes, it doesn't get any better either. Small businesses, the results tell us, want backup options that are easy-to-use and affordable. How easy? One-button access. How affordable? Between $200 and $400. That combination adds up to the Maxtor OneTouch, which grabbed 42 percent of the vote. Capacity ranges from 120GB to 300GB and offers USB 2.0 and dual USB 2.0/FirwWire connections. (Read our review)

While the voting underscored the broad appeal of the Maxtor OneTouch, businesses with more demanding storage needs may opt for products with the network-attached storage (NAS) features of the Iomega NAS A305m (read our review) or the storage area networking (SAN) capabilities of the HP StorageWorks Modular Small Array 1000, which cost $1,600 and $9,995, respectively (read about HP's storage offerings for SMBs). Each snagged 29 percent of the vote.

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com Forums. Join the discussion today!
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