PC VENDORS want to woo small businesses, and they'll try just about anything to capture their hearts, minds, and of course, tech dollars. A current popular tactic entails partnering with portals and ASPs to offer resource centers, Web connectivity, and a host of other services. But unless the manufacturers can begin to look beyond selling their products, these collaborations hold little added value for the customer.
IBM, Hewlett Packard, Compaq, and Dell have all put together packages to get you connected on line, with a URL, e-mail address, shopping cart, chat center, and Web-based calendar. They also offer services including online procurement, bookkeeping, and even banking. Of the four, two are little more than a collection of links to services small businesses probably already use or can access more easily from elsewhere. "You have to give something in return," says Deepak Amin, CEO of vJungle, a small business ASP that recently partnered with HP. "It must be integrated if it is to be worthwhile."
HP seems to agree. They partnered with Amin and vJungle to offer Web-based services, but there is no hardware to purchase or configure, and the basic services are free. In addition, HP's vJungle offers other services such as bookkeeping and calendars and integrates it all, so there is no need to enter the same information in multiple applications.
IBM has gone a different route with its offering, Web Connections. It is what Laurie McCabe, vice president and service director at Summit Communications, calls an idiot-proof, one-stop shop for Web connectivity. The way it works now is that the small business owner buys the Whistle Interjet server, gets a Web site with a unique domain name, unlimited e-mail addresses, shopping carts, and anything else she need to get her business on line in a professional manner. Monthly fees vary depending on which services the business chooses, and there are hints that additional Web-based applications and services will be available soon.
Compaq, who has partnered with SmartOnline to create its Small Business Resource Center and Dell with its eWorks, would both seemingly have a market share advantage thanks to their direct-to-consumer models. After all, the small business owner is used to coming to those sites to buy equipment and get information. The sites, however, seem to be little more than links to other services, missing the integration component all together.
"Obviously they've all dipped their toes into this small business portal/hosted service marketplace to different degrees, and they all have certain strengths," says McCabe.
There is one universal problem with accessing these small business portals and services through the manufacturers' sites: they all treat them like unloved step children. On Compaq and Dell, the services are buried many clicks from the companies' homepages. And on HP and Dell, they are pushed off to the side. They are all selling hardware up front with the services presented as an after thought. It's currently easier to find information straight from vJungle.com and SmartOnline.com than from the manufacturers' pages.
"All of the PC vendors' sites will continue to be an e-commerce site for their products. But can they really go beyond that and become a big channel with these other services?" If so, McCabe says,"They're going to have to get really creative to go way beyond what they do now,"