Mid-size companies are the target of a new bundled IT and communications service programme announced by Hewlett-Packard and Alcatel.

The two companies have joined forces to extend HP's Smart Office program, which offers small and medium-size businesses (SMBs) a one-stop service for their entire computing needs, to include telecommunications equipment and services, company executives said at a news conference at the Telecom World 2003 conference and exhibition in Geneva.

Under the new programme, called Ready Office, Alcatel and HP will partner with telecommunication service providers worldwide to provide voice, data and multimedia services. In Geneva, the partners announced a first telco agreement with France Télécom.

The bundled package of equipment and services, ranging from computers and printers to network access and Internet telephony, will be available on a pay-per-use model.

Many small and medium-sized businesses can't afford to hire people to manage the systems they need and are generally unwilling to take risks on technology, said HP CEO, Carly Fiorina.

"They need technology that is appropriate, economical, totally reliable and uncomplicated," she said. "With our Ready Office program, we aim to deliver on that need."

Fiorina referred to the program as a way to offer SMBs a "prepackaged office, wrapped in a managed service." What makes the service particularly interesting for this group of customers, she said, is that "they pay only for what they use."

The package, said Alcatel CEO Serge Tchuruk, "is scalable so customers can easily add or drop services, and there are no up-front costs."

Businesses can choose, he said, "what they want to have on their premises under their direct control" and what they want to purchase as a network service.

One analyst was enthusiastic about the offering.

"This simple, off-the-shelf package is exactly what small and medium-size businesses want," said Camille Mendler, research director with the Yankee Group. "And this is the first time that some really big industry players have joined forces to provide such a service."

For telecoms operators, the Ready Office programme could help them carve out a larger chunk of the global SMB market for fixed and mobile communication services, which, according to Tchuruk, will be worth around US$300 billion in 2003.

Service providers are eager to move up the value chain and provide value-added services, such as messaging and voice over IP (Internet Protocol), in addition to their basic voice and data services, according to Tchuruk. "Our package is a way for them to achieve this."

The package will be available through a multitude of channels provided by the partners, Tchuruk said.