Microsoft program offers small Web developers free, low-cost tools and support

Confronted with increased competition and shrinking margins many small Web design firms need everything it takes to keep their businesses afloat.

Rising software prices have compounded the problem.

Now a new program may be just what the doctor ordered. It offers struggling Web design/developer shops the resources they need to give their operations a much needed boost.

Dubbed WebsiteSpark, this Microsoft Corp. program offers developers free to low-cost software and tech support, and an online channel to shore up their business contacts.

The initiative is similar to Microsoft’s BizSpark program – launched last year. It offers software and other resources to startups.

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An executive from a Toronto Web hosting firm that recently tried out the program said WebSpark provided him with potential leads in a matter of days.

“Three days after we signed on to the program we received at least nine queries from people and organizations eager to know more about us,” said Stephen Nichols, vice-president of sales for SoftCom Inc. Softcom owns, a Web hosting company and, a secure e-mail and hosted exchange service provider.

Nichols Web hosting outfits find it difficult to differentiate themselves from the rest of pack. “There are so many firms out there offering the same services that Web development has become commoditized. Prices have gone down too low.”

One way to attract business, he said, is to have access to Web developers and designers. “Many of our clients come to us for hosting services but they also need people to design and develop their site for them.”

Nichols said WebsiteSpark instantly connects SoftCom with an online community of designers and developers offering a wide variety of expertise.

WebsiteSpark is able to attract many young and budding Web developers and designers because it provides free access to Microsoft design tools, and “lower-priced” production and developer tools, according to Deanne Taenzer, software and services lead for channel development at Microsoft Canada.

She said many Canadian designers and developers use open source tools because their budgets can’t cover the cost of licensed software.

Through WebsiteSpark, Taenzer said, companies with 10 employees or fewer will have access to three free licenses for Visual Studio 2008 Professional Edition, two licenses for Expression Web 3 and one license for Expression Studio 3.

Qualifying companies also receive four processor licenses for production use on both Windows Web Server 2008 and Microsoft SQL Server 2008 Web Edition.

Firms can use Web Server 2008 and SQL Server 2008 Web Edition free for testing purposes, but need to pay a fee of around $5 to $20 per month, per server if they are using the tools for a customer, said Taenzer.

The program also includes two technical-support incidents per company, access to community support through connections with other Microsoft partners and unlimited access to technical managed newsgroups on the Microsoft Developer Network.

SherWeb Inc. in Sherbrooke, Que. uses WebsiteSparks library of free and low-cost software.

The firms says it helps them add value to their service offerings. Most of the company’s revenue comes from its mobile hosted exchange and customer relations management (CRM) hosting, according to Pierre-Olivier Descoteaux, SherWeb’s managing and sales director.

“To set ourselves apart from competitors, we needed to build in more value [through] flexible tools and add-ons to our products,” he said.

This additional functionality does not always come cheap, Descoteaux noted. But he said WebsiteSpark has given his company a very attractive alternative.

Cyrus Massoumi, whose company ZocDoc, a New York-based free service that allows patients to book their doctor’s appointments online, said getting free software and support has been a great benefit. ZocDoc provides a Web site through which people can book doctors’ appointments.

“The program enables us to work with Microsoft’s latest technologies without worrying about cost, and the savings for our data center are significant,” said Massoumi, ZocDoc’s CEO and founder.

With files from Elizabeth Montalbano

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