Anyone following the evolution of the American Institute of CPAs' plan to build a WebMD.com for the professional accounting community can't help but notice that the portal seems to be, well, sputtering. The institute's governing council (the folks who also brought you 'Cognitor') authorized the development of the portal back in 2000.

The grand idea: to create an online community to provide CPAs and their small business clients a Web-based home for doing business. Microsoft and the Thomson Corp. (which, in the interest of full disclosure, owns the publisher of the Electronic Accountant) threw millions of dollars at the effort, and the site went on a spending spree - hiring the best developers, the top CPA technology talent, and some of the brightest business leaders to get the ball rolling.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the Web. Just three months after launching with a staff of 150, the company trimmed its workforce to 110 people. Then, in January they laid off another 13 people, including the entire channel sales staff - headed by former Micro Vision software executive Dave Bergstein.

This week, the company announced that it has acquired Web services provider Rivio and made that company's founder president of CPA2Biz. Chief executive Brett Prager gets to keep his title, but seems to have lost his hold on the power.

What the heck is going on here?

From anecdotal evidence supplied by CPAs not affiliated with the project, the site is cumbersome, difficult to navigate, a pain to log on to, and once you're there, not terribly much to do other than buy AICPA products and read day-old news.

The AICPA initially touted the portal as a program that will usher CPAs and their clients into the electronic age and dramatically improve how firms practice. At the time, Prager told Accounting Today editor John Covaleski that he expected the portal to reach its share of the nation's 25 million small businesses because "the average small business owner is highly influenced by his or her accountant in virtually all business decisions."

The site may make some money because the AICPA transferred all of its revenue-generating operations to the portal, and it brokered a deal with the state societies to license their membership lists in exchange for a share in future profits, but no one's yet been bragging about those 25 million small businesses being persuaded to give the site a spin by their CPAs.

I don't know what Rivio whiz kid Navin Chaddha has in mind, but he'd better pull some rabbit out of a hat soon, or he'll just be left holding his hat.

A recent redesign of the home page gave the site a nice boost, but there just doesn't seem to be enough "there, there" to give this company my unqualified opinion. I'm no auditor, but I'd say it might have trouble continuing as a going concern in 2002.

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