Three months after scrapping an effort to integrate its e-commerce, content management and integration software into one suite of products, Microsoft has decided to forge ahead with another major release of its e-commerce server software, which it expects to release in early 2006.

The successor to Commerce Server 2002 will have an improved user interface, new reporting features, and tighter integration with Microsoft's BizTalk Server and Visual Studio. Net. It will also allow businesses to make order-checking and account information available to their customers.

A beta version of the new software will be available in the first half of 2005, said Stacey Ellingson, product manager of business process and integration at Microsoft.

Though the software giant is no longer planning to integrate Commerce Server with its BizTalk Server and Content Management Server software, it will tie-in all but BizTalk in an upcoming release of Microsoft Solution for Internet Business, along with better integration with SQL Server and Visual Studio.

Commerce Server has been around for a decade, previously under the Site Server and Merchant Server brand names, but Commerce Server itself has only about 3,700 customers worldwide, Microsoft said.

The product has been squeezed between Web hosting providers at the low end and the e-commerce offerings of companies such as IBM at the high end, said Rob Helm a director of research with Directions on Microsoft. "It wasn't clear, long term, whether Commerce Server as a product was going to stick around, but clearly Microsoft cares a lot about website hosting, and the capabilities of Commerce Server will be around in some form," he explained.

Monday's announcement should answer questions about the product's road map, said Steven Martin, group product manager at the business process and integration division. "We're trying to make it very clear that, based on the feedback from customers, this is a product that has a very clear road map," he said.

Microsoft will offer customers a glimpse of the new user interface as part of a software upgrade to Commerce Server that the company will release today. Commerce Server's Business Desk feature has been rewritten in the new interface, which is more "Windows-like" than its previous Web interface, Ellingson said. "We took advantage of the latest and greatest .Net technologies to make the user interface much faster," she said.

The upgrade, called Feature Pack 1 and available as a free upgrade for Commerce Server users, will also let customers create codes for sales promotions on their websites and together with Microsoft's Application Center software, improve site-staging capabilities, so e-commerce sites can be tested locally before put out onto the Web.

The Standard Edition of Commerce Server 2002 costs $6,999 (£3,950); the Enterprise Edition costs $19,999 (£11,290) per processor. Pricing for the upcoming version of the product was not available.