Finding software aimed directly at the business market might be getting easier

Jan 28 1997

What makes the computer on your desk different from, say, a 1970s-era word processor, or your bank's ATM machine, or your kid's Nintendo-64?

If you said 'software,' give yourself a point. Like your computer, those other gadgets all use basically similar hardware, but your computer lets you easily change its function by running different software.

But where does the software on your business's computers come from? You've probably got a word processor, maybe a spreadsheet--probably parts of a large office-type suite. In other words, you likely have software that's packaged for use at home and school, as well as in the office. On the other hand, you may also have some custom-made applications--perhaps a front end for your company's sales or inventory data, written by a consultant just for your company.

There hasn't been so much software in be-tween--products aiming particularly at general business users.

Sure, there's always been some business-oriented software--accounting or payroll products, point-of-sale products, or special-function products aimed at narrowly defined market niches like dentist-office management. But now, it looks as if more software developers are aiming to serve the business market directly, especially small businesses, which are less likely to be able to hire consultants to create customized applications.

Here are a few products that have come my way lately:

* Business Focus describes itself as a 'small business planning program.' It's distributed in Canada by CIBC--yes, the bank, not your typical software source. Running on Windows only, it has modest computer requirements. It is designed to help small business operators develop business plans, and seems clearly laid out and simple to use. Users can start by evaluating their current budget and assets, evaluating a target market, determining a proposed business site, and tallying their start-up or expansion costs. It can be used to produce balance sheets and income statements, and to calculate loan costs.

The modest but useful documentation includes several typical case studies and sample reports. The software looks useful for people looking to start a small business, develop a business plan, and sell their idea to a bank manager. It costs $49.

* Also aiming at small to mid-sized businesses are a pair of products from Quebec's Dynacom (1-800-565-2266): Accounting Pro ($69.95) and Acounting Gold ($159). The lower-priced product includes standard general ledger--accounts receivable and payable, invoicing and inventory modules. It also includes budgeting and forecasting features, along with bank reconciliation, forecasting, and custom form design. The higher-priced version adds job-costing and payroll modules and a report generator. Both versions support multiple users over a network, and up to 99 separate companies.

* You know it's getting to be that time of the year when the income tax software packages start appearing. CanTax (1-800-265-3800) has expanded its line of products beyond the original basic package.

Their new product, the Canadian Tax Tutor ($59), developed in collaboration with the Evelyn Jacks Institute (EJI), aims to train users in the intricacies of tax law. The software includes an examination which can be sent in to get a certificate from EJI (for an additional $35 fee). This package can't be used to file your 1996 tax return, but registered users will receive a free copy of the standard CanTax 97 package for filing purposes. Don't expect to learn to do your company's tax return from it--it's aimed instead at helping you gain the tax skills to maximize your own return, to run a small business on the side, or to help with others' returns.

* Thought of conducting a survey? Apian Software (1-800-237-4565) has some software for you. Survey Pro works behind the scenes when you design a questionnaire, linking your questions to a database to help analyze the results. The approximately $1,000 package is designed to create attractive paper-based forms; questionnaires can't be filled in directly on computer.

Once the data is entered back into the computer, however, Survey Pro includes options to produce attractive reports or presentation slides. Data can be analyzed using frequency distributions and cross-tabulations. For more intensive analysis, the data can be exported to spreadsheet or statistical packages.

Apian has also produced an add-on, Net.collect (about $700). This allows Survey Pro users to produce surveys for posting on the Internet. The collected data can then be imported back into Survey Pro. Documentation does a good job of covering the issues of conducting surveys over the Web, including dealing with forms on a Web server. It also has a well-written 'how-to' guide, walking the user through building a sample information-gathering application.*

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan