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Microsoft waits in the wings as Best debuts latest iteration of ACT

Best Software is out with ACT 6.0, the latest version of its low-end contact management software. Despite the enhancements, analysts say ACT may face some stiff competition from Microsoft's upcoming offering.

Best Software Inc. released the latest iteration of its well-known ACT contact management offering Tuesday. Despite increased competition from software industry heavyweight Microsoft Corp.'s soon-to-be-released software, Best continues to emphasize ties to popular Microsoft platforms.

ACT 6.0 arrives with good name recognition and a widely distributed customer base. Irvine, Calif.-based Best claims some 4 million individual users and 12,000 corporate accounts for the software. However, with Microsoft entering the low-end of the CRM market with a maiden offering that supplies functionality in the same arena as ACT, competition between the two application vendors seems likely to heat up.

"If I was ACT, I'd be looking over my shoulder and thinking about how I can make my products even more valuable to existing customers," said David Bradshaw, vice president at London-based research and consulting provider Ovum. "Once Microsoft CRM hits the market, I think it's fair to say they'll be competing for the same kind of users."

A common thread between ACT 6.0 and early previews of Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft's initial CRM offering are strong ties to the software giant's Outlook e-mail and calendar management platform. Based on previews, some observers have labeled Microsoft CRM as little more than "Outlook on steroids."

Best has gone to great lengths to further integrate ACT 6.0 with Outlook, as well as other Microsoft Office products, including Excel.

"We've designed the 6.0 release so that users have even greater flexibility and fewer interruptions in moving back and forth between ACT and [Microsoft] Office applications," said Paul Selby, senior product manager for ACT. "This is what users have been asking us for."

Among the other upgraded features of ACT 6.0 is an improved e-mail function that can be used as a stand-alone client or integrated with Outlook, Outlook Express, SMTP/POP3 (Internet Mail) and Lotus Notes e-mail folders. Other new tools include Excel spreadsheet integration, contact activity mining, event tracking, improved Web site linking integration and HTML-based e-mail templates.

The software maker said version 6.0 is hitting store shelves with a suggested retail price of $199.95 and a $70 mail-in upgrade rebate for existing users. The package is also available to existing users directly from Best for only $99.95.

Best executives say they welcome the arrival of Microsoft to the contact management space because the move is essentially an endorsement of the sector's potential for growth. But Ovum's Bradshaw said competition for ACT will only get tougher.

"It will take Microsoft a few iterations to get their product right," he said. "But if I were ACT, I might be feeling scared about how this area of the market could shake out."


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