By Gail Perry

Where once companies and individuals attempting to acquire or dispatch information faced long lines, telephone queues, contact personnel without all the answers and scheduling conflicts, a surge of Internet portals are now providing all the requisite information and information-sharing via 24/7 access.

The evolution of the business portal has spawned sophisticated Web sites where businesses, employees, customers, service-providers, data sources and software providers can conduct their affairs efficiently, on their own schedule and in a secure and updated environment.

And for the accountant, the challenges of working with small business clients, such as accessing and sharing information and coordinating schedules, are gradually ebbing thanks to the proliferation of more sophisticated sites.

A "pure" data portal provides a steady stream of information - some are updated constantly and some are static. And the data is available for researchers and others who seek access to information. Businesses that need to dispense information to employees or vendors may use this type of portal as a data warehouse for archived information and may also provide current industry or company news while continually updating data.

Information-sharing portals enable a give-and-take of information. This type of portal might include online order forms, shipment tracking and customizable presentations that can be personalized based on information entered about the user. In addition, these portals may partner with others who provide services specific to a particular industry.

Some of the most popular business portals include, Intacct, Microsoft’s bCentral, Accountant’s World, NetLedger, Intuit, Peachtree and lending solutions site VerticalLend.

Software interface portals have emerged that now enable users to access software programs online. One of the most prolific uses of this type of interface is within the accounting profession, where professionals are teaming up with online application service providers to offer clients the ability to enter financial information and accountants the ability to access and analyze that information.

Portal sites, such as those operated by Intacct, QuickBooks, Oracle Small Business Suite (marketed by NetLedger) and Peachtree, provide accounting software and remote access of private portals for firms and their clients or company executives and their staff.

"More than 85 percent of existing QuickBooks customers work with an accountant on a daily basis," said Charles Var, public relations manager for QuickBooks. "Our site helps accountants manage their business and manage their small business accounting by providing tools and services - and by pointing out new business opportunities for them.", operated by Micro Vision, of Happauge, N.Y., attempts to team accountants with business owners and others by reaching out with advertising on other portals such as Yahoo! and America Online. Once on the Accountant’s World

site, vice president Laurence Zuckerman explained, "Account-ants find us useful because we provide a major source of information, including tools of the trade, free continuing professional education, calculators for providing quick answers to clients - a raft of tools that accountants find very useful."

At one time, three distinct variations of the portal concept populated the Internet: data portals, information sharing portals and software interface portals. But the line is blurring between these types of Web sites as portals strive to adapt to the needs of their entire community of users.

Raymond Boggs, vice president of small business research at International Data Corp., describes the merger of the various types of portals as an "aggreportal" - a combination small business and small business portal, that provides a comprehensive set of capabilities that can be accessed online by small firms, connecting visitors to partners who deliver specific Internet-based capabilities.

Boggs said that there are four concepts fueling the growth of aggreportals. Small firms are realizing the prohibitive cost involved in building a brand from scratch. Their financial backers are also aware of this cost and are pressuring businesses to focus on the bottom line and on the services or products that they are best at providing.

Small businesses have been slow to embrace the Internet and its capabilities so there is much growth still attainable. And, existing web sites are already reaching what Boggs described as critical mass, thus making room for others to join the marketplace.

Trends suggest that the aggreportal concept has a bright future ahead of it. As small businesses gain respect for the capabilities of the Internet and confidence in the ability to perform secure online transactions, and as they realize the potential cost and time savings that are available to those who take full advantage of the Internet, the possibilities for growth of aggreportals abound.

While many small businesses are still holding back on embracing the Internet, Zuckerman feels that it is just a matter of time before that attitude changes. "The whole industry is migrating to the Internet in several stages," said Zuckerman, who described the stages as including a switch from CD-ROM to online research, Web sites for accountants and accounting firms and the onset of ASPs.

"There are a few lingering fears about privacy and viruses and techno-terrorism, but, ultimately, these are speed bumps along the road that we call the information superhighway. You can put a cone in the road and it will back up traffic for awhile, but ultimately the cars are going to drive around it. The Internet is the final frontier for commerce and accounting."

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