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Jeanne Lambert started her company, TELESALES Inc., three years ago, to provide telemarketing services to small high-tech companies. The first thing she needed was software that would automate the sales process, from generating and tracking leads to closing the deal. Her clients also had to be able to tap into the system. The solution: Lotus Development Corp.'s Notes collaboration software. ''They were the only game in town,'' says Lambert.

Not so anymore. Today, small-business owners have a wealth of options when it comes to software that helps teams of workers share information. And, with the spread of the Internet, it's cheaper and easier than ever to set up ''groupware'' systems. From every corner of cyberspace, companies are coming out with Notes-like products for the World Wide Web.

OFF THE SCREEN. The Web, in particular, provides an ideal, low-cost infrastructure for building groupware applications--for electronic discussions, scheduling meetings on a common calendar, or letting teams review and modify reports or other documents. Some systems even route work automatically from one PC to another--say, to complete a credit authorization. By using groupware with a standard Web setup, companies can easily collaborate with partners, suppliers, or customers.

The most prominent new groupware player is Netscape Communications Corp. It's building new features, such as E-mail and scheduling, around its Navigator browser to make it into a groupware ''client.'' A test version of the new program, called Communicator, will soon be available on Netscape's Web site. ''Lotus defined the [groupware] market,'' says Eric Brown, an analyst with Forrester Research Inc. ''Now, in many ways, Netscape has redefined it.''

Lotus, too, is Web-izing. A new version of Notes, called Domino, acts as a Web server. And its new Weblicator program plugs into a browser and provides many Notes features without requiring a pricey Notes server program. Microsoft, meanwhile, has created an E-mail and scheduling program called Outlook for its new Web-friendly Office 97 suite. It's also reworking Exchange, a messaging system, for the Web. And on Oct. 15, Novell Inc. shipped an update of its GroupWise program designed for intranets.

While the big software makers focus on big corporate accounts, a new crop of startups is targeting the small-business market, including Radnet Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., and Open Text in Bannockburn, Ill. Their marketing efforts are a welcome development for small-business owners. With Lotus, ''I didn't tend to show up on their radar screen,'' says TELESALES' Lambert. After signing on Radnet as a client, Lambert quickly began using its WebShare program to track sales. When Web surfers download trial software from Radnet's Web site, they fill out an electronic form, which is automatically routed to TELESALES sales reps. Now, Lambert is looking at using WebShare across her 50-person company, in lieu of Notes.

Small businesses may find the new products well-suited to their needs--perhaps because they were developed by small companies. While nothing on the market tops Lotus Notes when it comes to securing information stored on sprawling corporate nets, it can be overkill for many small firms. The upstarts' products don't require an investment in big, proprietary programs, either. WebShare, for example, works with standard Web setups and the E-mail or database packages customers already own. ''Anything that's Web-based is better for small companies,'' says Don Bulens, CEO of Radnet and a former Lotus executive.

The rise of upstarts has not escaped the notice of the big players. (Indeed, Lotus sued Radnet on Nov. 7 for hiring away an employee.) From Lotus to Microsoft, they're now adapting and packaging their groupware products for the small-business market. That's just what small companies need--lots of software makers fighting for their business.

By Amy Cortese in New York

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Updated June 14, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1996, Bloomberg L.P.
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