Microsoft is to start offering free accounting software, aiming it at start-up companies in particular. The move follows a decision by the company to split its accounting suite for small businesses into two separate offerings.

Office Accounting Express 2007, an updated version of Office Small Business Accounting 2006, will be available here for free, said Rajat Taneja, a Microsoft general manager for small business applications and services.
Microsoft also will begin offering a slightly higher-end version of the software, Office Accounting Professional 2007, from retailers early next year.

The professional edition of the software has more robust features than the free version for handling inventory management, budgeting, cash flow and other tasks mature small businesses require, Taneja said. Office Accounting Express 2007 is aimed more at small businesses that are just getting off the ground and need help starting up.

Microsoft introduced Office Small Business Accounting 2006 last September to help small businesses manage income and expense accounting. The product costs US$179, but Microsoft has lowered the pricing for the professional version to $149 in the 2007 edition, Taneja said.

Microsoft also has expanded the web-based offerings that are available through the software from two to seven. These are services from Microsoft partners - such as eBay's auction and eBay's PayPal payment services, Verisign security services, Automatic Data Processing's payroll service and Equifax's credit-check service - that small businesses may find useful.

The services cost extra, and range in price depending on the provider and the service, Taneja said. They are available in both the express and professional editions of the software.

Original reporting by IDG news service