In the comics, all you have to do is get exposed to some radiation, don some tights, and everyone knows you're ready to take on the world.With accounting software, it's not that easy.

Take the ongoing saga of "Software as a Service" - applications that are accessed over the Web, rather than installed in your office. While the idea has been around in one guise or another (as "hosted" or on-demand software, or in the application service provider model) since the late 1990s, and has made inroads in certain areas of business software, it has yet to create the revolution it promised, least of all in the market for core financial and accounting markets.

But things may be reaching a tipping point ...

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We've chosen to highlight Software as a Service on the cover of this year's Top 100 Products not because it dominates the list - most of the T100 are still installed on your local computer or server the "old-fashioned" way - but because it looks as if the model is finally beginning to win the sort of acceptance that could finally allow it to live up to its potential to change the way software is delivered.

Not quite a speeding bullet

After years struggling to attract interest from business - dampened by companies' lack of bandwidth and fears about trusting sensitive data to the ether - there's a renewed sense of excitement about the delivery of business software over the Web.

With broadband connections more common, and a long string of natural and man-made disasters promoting the idea that data may actually be safer off-site, companies are beginning to shake off their indifference. A Gartner study from late last year predicted that SaaS will grow seven times faster than on-premise software by 2009, and that 25 percent of new business software will be delivered as SaaS by 2011.

The two best-known names in SaaS accounting, Intacct and NetSuite, came on strong this year. With polished products under their belts, both were able to focus more on promotion and expansion.

Under a new chief executive, Intacct launched aggressive new "graduation" programs and service guarantees to lure users of entry-level accounting, and also announced a high-profile integration of its accounting software with Salesforce.com's established CRM solution. Rival NetSuite, meanwhile, filed for an initial public offering, and rolled out a number of products, including SuiteFlex and SuiteBundler, to make it easier to customize its service for vertical industries, as well as catching a little reflected glory by making sure it integrated with the iPhone.

Other vendors are also piling in.

This summer, nonprofit developer AccuFund rolled out AccuFund Hosted, an ASP version of its AccuFund Accounting Suite (a T100 Product). One of the original creators of QuickBooks came out this year with NetBooks, a hosted accounting and business management solution, and AccountantsWorld has moved its Accounting Relief to the Web with strong write-up, trial balance, financial reporting and bookkeeping features.

Putting on the cape

Despite all the new activity, SaaS is not new to accountants. NetSuite and Intacct have been around since the turn of the century, while Intuit and Sage have had online versions of their QuickBooks and Accpac accounting solutions for years. And in areas that already require the transfer of data, such as payroll and tax prep, hosted solutions have been growing steadily for almost a decade.

The difference, for most vendors, lies in a shift in emphasis. For many, SaaS is slowly moving away from being a grudging add-on, or at best a way to entice customers into buying on-premise software, and becoming a legitimate focus of activity. More and more vendors are offering complete ASP versions of their products, and it's less difficult now than at any time since the late 1990s to imagine a near future where hosted applications are at the forefront of every vendor's product line.

And then they really will be ready to take on the world.

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