Microsoft Shelves bCentral for Own Hosting Brand

Microsoft has shelved its bCentral brand and is now offering shared web hosting and domains directly to small businesses under the Microsoft name. The bCentral initiative had been the focus of Microsoft's small business strategy since 2000.

The domain now redirects to the new Microsoft Small Business Center, which offers shared hosting accounts starting at $29.95 a month, with domain names available for $20 a year. Existing bCentral customers will see no change in services, according to the frequently asked questions about the changes. Microsoft says more than 2 million customers have used bCentral services.

Microsoft has been running bCentral hosting as a private-label reseller, as the service is hosted by XO Communications. That relationship appears unchanged, as Microsoft hosts the domain, but resides at XO, along with other former bCentral clients, such as radio personality Tavis Smiley.

"We are evaluating how to best meet the needs of our small-business customer base via the Internet," Microsoft says on its new site, which includes a "What happened to bCentral?" link. Microsoft president Steven Ballmer had hinted at changes in its small business strategy at last month's Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference in Toronto. Ballmer said he hoped to "bring it to life in new ways," perhaps by repositioning application hosting offerings. Microsoft will continue to sell former bCentral services through its small business area, including web-based apps to enable search engine optimization, link exchange, and e-mail newsletters.

Microsoft's move could leave some of its hosting provider customers wondering about Redmond's plans for small business hosting. That's especially true for companies focused on Windows-based hosting, most of whom offer plans for less than $29.95 a month Microsoft is seeking. Some industry CEOs believe Microsoft is focused on marketing Windows Server 2003 prinarily for dedicated hosting, rather than shared hosting. Whatever its ambitions, Microsoft has decided its own well-known brand can get it there faster than bCentral.