Business Objects has expanded its Crystal Reports product by offering an online version of the software, allowing users to share business reports over the web.

The company said that the new service was particularly aimed at small and medium-sized businesses, who would be able to widen their use of Crystal Reports without buying extra software licences or assigning additional IT staff to maintain it.

The new service lets employees create Crystal Reports documents, upload them to the web and create a list of authorised personnel who would be able to access them.

Until now, many companies have shared Crystal reports by sending them as e-mail attachments or hard copies, which takes more time, is less secure and can lead to conflicting data, Business Objects said.

The service is offered in two versions - a free, basic service, available now in North American, and a Premium service, paid by monthly subscription, that will be offered in North America later this quarter. Both services will be offered globally in the second half of the year, said Business Objects.

The Basic service includes 10 user licences and limits the number of reports that can be shared to 60. It comes as a free extra with the latest version of the Crystal Reports software product, Crystal Reports XI.

The Premium service is for bigger companies that want to share reports externally with customers and partners. It covers an unlimited number of reports and supports additional document formats like PDF and Excel. It gives all users the ability to publish reports as well as view them. The Premium service also has tighter security, allowing companies to segregate reports and provide access at the folder level, Business Objects said.

The delivery of software as a service has grown more popular with the availability of faster, more reliable networks. Proponents say it cuts down on up-front costs in software and hardware, as well as the need for dedicated IT staff. Some businesses have expressed concerns about storing important or sensitive company data outside of their networks.