It is 2006. The crisply dressed female chief executive of a high-flying company is returning to the office from a pitch to face numerous hold-ups and inadequate financial data. Nothing changes, even in the future.
She returns to her desk and logs on to her Internet account to view the information she has requested about an accountancy software supplier.
From this interactive multimedia Web site she sees and hears about how this company was formed in 1983, led the way in the Unix accounting software market and then released a product that 'was to revolutionise the industry in the mid-1990s'. By the year 2006 this product has become 'the standard by which other products are judged'. Its publisher has just announced turnover of 100 million Euros and profits of 16 million Euros.
This is Multisoft's vision of its own future and the future of the suite of client/server financial software that it plans to release in June.
Only time will tell whether it will lead to a revolution, but for some resellers it may present an opportunity to sell a financial and accounting suite which has been designed with the future, not the past, in mind.
But resellers which enjoyed success with Multisoft in the 80s should be aware that this is an entirely new product. Multisoft is a different company, says managing director Tony Nicholls, and it probably needs to work with a different kind of reseller.
'If I am honest about it, in the 80s users received pretty poor service quality and support from dealers,' he says. 'People forgot about that because it was fun and they were making money. It's not like that any more. We're probably not as much fun to deal with but I do know that we do a more professional job.' What remains from the 80s is the friendly approach and a willingness to listen: resellers that want to talk to Multisoft again will be welcomed.
Many resellers will have fond memories of the period from 1985 to 1990 when sales of mid-range out-of-the-box accounting solutions were booming. Between the mid 80s and the end of the decade they had raised Multisoft from relative obscurity to one of the most important accounting software companies in the UK. 'It was five years of paradise,' says Nicholls.
But it all went wrong for Multisoft and for many of its resellers. Only now is the company finding its way back. In the year ended September 30 1995, sales were about u6.5 million, up 30 per cent on the previous year. Pre-tax profits were up 67 per cent, mainly because of cost-reduction and a refocusing on the high-end Premier Plus product.
About half of the company's revenue comes from product sales and half is from services. Multisoft says that from 60 per cent to 65 per cent goes through third parties.
There were several reasons for Multisoft's fall from grace at the start of the 90s: the fragmentation of Unix, the recession, the drop in hardware prices and the subsequent dash for services in the channel.
'There wouldn't have been a problem if there was only one flavour of Unix, but because more and more came out it became a big problem,' says Nicholls. 'It cost us a lot of money.' At one point Multisoft was trying to maintain versions of its software on 24 different Unix platforms.
'When the bubble burst in 1990, as it did for us all, the cost of maintaining all these platforms became prohibitive. We became unpopular with resellers because we had to introduce maintenance charges.' Multisoft also failed to meet the product expectations of dealers. As the market grew tougher, so relations with many of its resellers deteriorated.
'In the 1980s everyone was selling,' says Nicholls. 'When you are selling everyone enjoys themselves. But in the 1990s we hit two brick walls: the slump and the replacement market. Everyone had a system and we had to sell into that market.' Dealers themselves switched to selling maintenance and support . Multisoft, finding times harder, cut back on its support and on-the-road personnel. That made things worse and Multisoft went into a tailspin which did not really end until July 1994 when Sage bought the company.
Sage has been a fantastic development for Multisoft, says Nicholls. Sage chairman David Goldman and non-executive director Michael Jackson attend Multisoft board meetings every six weeks and Nicholls says that Goldman's clarity of vision and Jackson's determination to ensure strategies are properly thought out are invaluable.
A renewed emphasis on marketing may also have much to do with the influence of Sage. Multisoft is rolling out programmes that will filter leads to qualified resellers and help them to target and run seminars - a technique Sage has used to great effect in recent times.
There are people out on the road again and advertising and promotional activity is higher than it has been for years. This year, Multisoft has bought the space on all the wrappers of Accountancy Age, Business Age, Management Consultancy and Financial Director.
The campaign is focused on associating the Multisoft name with 'financial and business systems'. It is focused on raising Multisoft's awareness among influencers (accountants and consultants) as well as the buying community. The marketing is working, says Nicholls, and customers and dealers are finding their way back to Multisoft.
'We got an order the other day from a dealer which we hadn't heard from in three years and to tell you the truth, we'd forgotten about it. But something must have spurred it into action.' Nor has Multisoft lost contact with all the resellers from the heyday of the 80s, says Nicholls. 'Many of the best ones are still there. We lost some significant players such as Team, which was bought by Misys, and Centrefile when it was sold off by Nat West. We lost Premier Solutions, which went bust, and Mytec, which also went bust, but there are still a lot of people out there doing the job.' Multisoft has about 120 dealers in the UK. Nicholls thinks this is a fairly healthy figure but this reseller base is still selling the Prestige Plus and Premier Plus product ranges. Nicholls believes that only about 30 of them will make the transition to selling the new product, CS800, when it is released in the summer.
Not all will want to make the jump anyway. Multisoft has 8,500 registered sites and Nicholls believes that there are another 2,500 sites for which the company has no registration details.
Multisoft has started with a clean slate with CS, which is written in a mix of C and the Supernova 4GL. It is unlike anything we have seen before, says Nicholls.
'This is revolutionary not evolutionary. CS is one of the most technically advanced and feature-rich products developed for this market.' Multisoft describes CS800 as 'a three-tier intelligent client/ server' system. It has broad financial and accounting functionality, a roll-back recovery feature and it is multilingual, multicurrency and 'interactive'. In other words it's not modular and there is no need to run batch processes to post transactions.
CS800 is scalable and platform independent, according to Multisoft. It runs off the back of SQL databases and uses object-oriented technology.
Over the next few years and months, Multisoft will release different versions of the CS product that cater for users with lesser requirements.
On paper it looks like a highly sophisticated product, not one for the faint-hearted. It will compete with products such as Sunaccounts from Systems Union, Coda, Cedardata and Tetra CS/3.
Multisoft is aiming at large companies, possibly multinationals, but certainly businesses which are active in more than one country.
It will retain its focus on markets in which it is already strong - wholesale and distribution, construction and services industries - but most of the prospects for CS800 will almost certainly not be current users of Multisoft systems.
This is why Multisoft is running an awareness campaign that assumes the financial community has little or no previous knowledge of the company.
It is also why Multisoft has decided to roll out a top-of-the-range system first. After CS800 it will develop versions that will appeal more to small organisations.
The idea is to bring users on earlier and give them a path to move up. CS600, CS400 and any other systems that Multisoft develops will be less of a leap in power for existing users of Premier Plus or Prestige Plus.
But the next versions of CS are some way off and Nicholls is keen to emphasise that existing products will continue to be developed for the time being. ODBC support and integration with Lotus Smartsuite is being added to Premier Plus this year. The system already runs under Windows 95 and Netware 4.1.
Nicholls is confident the CS range will not conflict with Sage's products. 'Sage didn't buy Multisoft to compete with itself,' he says, pointing out that whereas CS will run on Unix and NT, Sage is running on Windows and Netware.
But a degree of overlap in functionality is desirable, he says. If there were gaps, some users might fall through them. There may also be an overlap of resellers. Some of the 120 Premier Plus resellers may move down to sell the Sage products; some may migrate upwards from the Sage line to sell CS. The same thing might happen to users. Sage customers looking to move into the client/server world may well turn to Multisoft.
The two companies are bound to co-operate when a user seems to want to move this way but it is not yet clear how Sage and Multisoft resellers might be encouraged to work together. Nor is it absolutely clear how the CS range might affect the future development of the Sovereign product.
With CS's multicurrency and client/server capabilities, there is also the possibility that Sage might encourage users of Saari in France to take the CS path. While not ruling it out, Multisoft says as yet there have been no stakes placed in the ground on this front. CS will work internationally.
As Sovereign is only now starting to emerge on the Windows platform and the market for pan-European style packages is still relatively small in terms of the numbers of contracts available, Sage and Multisoft both have time to work on migration and co-operation. Whatever happens the two companies are and will remain quite separate, Nicholls assures PC Dealer.
The reseller base will also remain quite separate and - with CS800 at least - Multisoft is likely to sell a proportion of systems direct. This is necessary in the early stages of the product's life, says Nicholls.
'Multisoft has got no reputation in the corporate market and resellers are not the key to that. It's the consultants, systems integrators and vendors. Our competitors have served that market through these organisations for several years and we've got to do the same,' says Nicholls.
He understands that this may make some resellers wary but he feels Multisoft has no choice in the matter. 'If we do it, resellers will say we are competing with them; if we don't, they will say that we have no reputation with corporates.' He also believes that resellers may have difficulties demonstrating to very large companies that they have the resources to support the installation and meet the requirements of ITTs. The penalty clauses on implementation contracts can be severe indeed.
Resellers cannot yet demonstrate or sell the product. Multisoft has been preparing the training in the build-up to the scheduled availability of CS800. If all goes according to the company's plan, the product will be shipping on June 1. Then again, says Nicholls, 'this is the software business'.
'We have announced it and produced the video because we want to get it on people's ITTs. The decision-making process on this sort of product is six to nine months.' The sort of ITTs Multisoft hopes to get will be budgeting u40,000 plus for the accounting software. Multisoft's existing Premier Plus range comes in at about u25,000; CS600 will be pitched at about u20,000.
That may give resellers a chance to get up to speed on CS800. Those that get involved will need more expertise than the average Multisoft Premier or Prestige dealer could be expected to have in-house.
CS will need a database to feed off (Oracle or SQL Server) and is likely to be running on a multiprocessor platform most of the time.
'We are targeting resellers which are selling into markets that want a sophisticated product, that want to use up-to-date technology and that want service and are prepared to pay for it,' says Nicholls.
That does not mean that current resellers will not be considered. Everyone will be given the opportunity to get involved, he says. 'We will go to the reseller base and tell them what we think they need in terms of implementation and support. They will need to have those skills. We will help if they don't have the skills and want to get them.'
Nicholls says that Multisoft has already secured offers of assistance from Oracle and Microsoft. He sees Oracle 7 and SQL Server as the most likely database engines for CS installations. In the long term he sees NT as the most likely operating environment for CS, although at first it will be released for SCO Openserver 5.
'If I have got my sums right, the way NT is constructed will suit our product well,' he says. Nicholls believes NT's uniformity across many platforms and its scalability will enable users and resellers to reduce costs.
'It's got amazing cost repercussions. With NT you only need to maintain it on one piece of hardware and you can sell it right across the board. No matter what size the installation, it's the same to implement and support.'
By allowing many different versions to be developed, Nicholls believes Unix has dug its own grave. 'That's why NT will eventually kill Unix - there's only one version of NT.' But that does not mean Nicholls is turning his back on the system.
'The new business we're going to get in the corporate market is mostly going to be with people with an NT strategy. But it would be suicide to turn our back on Unix.' Multisoft hopes to have the NT version of CS800 ready three months after the Openserver version ships. Nicholls believes that, as Multisoft works towards its vision of how the company will be in 10 years' time, most of its CS software will be running under NT.
But that could all change. Ten years is a long time in the software business - as Nicholls will tell you.
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