Best Software overhauls Act, unveils premium edition

Best Software Inc. launched this week an overhaul of its Act contact management software, adding to the product line a second version with more scalability and advanced functionality.

Tuesday's release of Act 2005 marks the first major update in several years of the popular contact management software, for which Best Software claims a registered user base of more than 2 million customers. The software has been completely rewritten on Microsoft Corp.'s .Net platform and built around a SQL database, to modernize its architecture and increase its scalability. Best Software also updated the aging software's user interface.

First introduced in 1985, Act is one of the CRM (customer relationship management) software market's original ancestors. Thanks to its availability in retail stores and relative ease of use, Act's software for managing customer and contact details became a widely used alternative to scribbled notes and Excel spreadsheets.

Act has been through a number of ownership changes in its nearly two decades on the market, but it appears to have found a stable home at Best Software, a unit of U.K. software company Sage Group PLC. In 2001, Irvine, California-based Best Software scooped up Act's then-parent SalesLogix, which sells an eponymous higher-end CRM system.

Bouncing around from owner to owner stymied Act's development, but Best Software executives say they're committed to the software, which they see anchoring their broader portfolio of CRM products. To underscore that commitment, the company staged a splashy launch Tuesday in New York's Times Square to herald the arrival of Act 2005.

In addition to refurbishing Act's core software, Best Software is adding a new, higher-end version, called Act 2005 Premium for Workgroups. The new product is intended to help organizations bridge the gap between contact management and full-fledged CRM.

Act 2005, which carries a retail price of US$230, is intended for groups of up to 10 users and can manage up to 50,000 contacts, an increase from earlier versions. Act 2005 Premium, priced at $400, is intended for up to 50 users and can handle 100,000 contacts. The Premium edition features additional group-collaboration tools, such as support for data synchronization to a central database and the ability to restrict access rights to specific contacts.

Act 2005 is available now from Web retailers and channel resellers, and will roll out in retail stores like Office Depot in September.

One veteran Act user, entrepreneur Jim Jobin, said he welcomes the new features and greater scalability of Act 2005, which he started using two weeks ago. Jobin owns TheWritersEdge.com, a Henderson, Nevada, business that does $3 million in annual revenue selling unusual pens and accessories. He has been an Act devotee since 1989.

"The size of the database has always been a challenge for me," Jobin said. "I kept telling (Act's developers), 'I have 24,000 contacts!' But I always felt comfortable Act would get to that level."

Jobin said he's still struggling with some of the software's limitations. Act 2005 can handle his 24,000 contacts, but has a significant lag on loading them. He's also eager for Best Software to develop a Web interface for Act -- he'd like to be able to share online his contacts database with his company's dozen customer service representatives. Still, Jobin said he prefers to wait for Act to grow than to look at other CRM options. He's optimistic if Best Software doesn't build the features he needs, third-party companies will.

"I use a lot of add-ons," he said. "There's a lot of outside developers working around Act."

Yankee Group analyst Sheryl Kingstone said Web-enablement is a must for Act if it's to remain competitive. "They have to do it, and they know that," she said.

Joe Bergera, general manager of Best Software's small business division, said the company is working on it. Act has a Web edition, but it is currently sold as a stand-alone product that is not compatible with Act 2005. The company does not yet offer a Web interface Act desktop users can employ to access their contacts online.

The Yankee Group's Kingstone sees Best Software's renewed investment in Act as a positive step, but said that as the software moves toward offering greater CRM functionality, it faces stiff competition from more technically advanced products like the hosted CRM system offered by Salesforce.com Inc.

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