Test Drive lets agencies kick software tires

Microsoft creates portal in which its business partners can demonstrate their products for potential customers.

Agencies curious about software can now take some products out for a spin without having to make changes to their technology infrastructure.

The program, appropriately called the TestDrive Center, allows Microsoft partners to demonstrate their products. Potential customers can view a screen via the Web that shows them what the software looks like and allows them to try it out. The applications run on remote servers, so testing them does not affect an agency's systems. Citrix Systems' Access Suite connects customers to the demonstrations.

Citrix also demonstrates its products through TestDrive, said Tom Simmons, the company's director of government systems.

"It's an economical way for the government customer to see the applications and understand how they might work in their own environment," Simmons said. "The TestDrive is all about access. From Citrix's perspective, that is our core principle, giving somebody access to information from any device."

The program is relatively new. Microsoft and Citrix ran a pilot effort in October 2004 and then formally launched it in April. Mike Schutz, senior product manager of Microsoft's Windows Server Division, said seven Microsoft partners make applications available through the program and another dozen are considering joining.

"It gives [customers] a first look to kind of kick the tires on their own terms without relying on an account manager or sales rep to put the pitch on," Simmons said. "As they see the applications working in their environment, they form their own opinions, and more importantly, they form their own questions. We have the opportunity to help them buy things rather than selling it to them."

Another advantage for Microsoft partners is that they can make sure the systems that run the applications are properly configured without sending employees to customer sites or through lengthy teleconferences with agency officials, said Eric Eklund, federal account manager at The Computer Solution Co. (TCSC), a TestDrive participant.

TCSC's Forensic Advantage Case and Evidence is a lab management system that tracks forensic analysis data in crime labs and other settings.

The Microsoft partnership "might be a door opener for us," Simmons said. "It might be an opportunity to expand the awareness of what Citrix does. It gets us in the game so that we can then move forward."

TestDrive gives little-known companies such as TCSC an opening, Eklund said, because agencies can see what the software can do with no risk or investment. "I think it's going to help streamline and grow our product side of the business," he said.

Larry Allen, executive vice president of the Coalition for Government Procurement, said companies rightly seek any way to get a foot in the door of agencies they want to sell to. Programs such as TestDrive can help, but companies still have to create quality products, he said.

"The idea is to have it be a product that your customer can't live without," he said.

Also, agency officials will recognize that a Web-based tryout is good only for an early look, Allen said. Often, companies will still have to make a compelling case for their products.

"In anything other than a real situation, you can think you know how it's going to operate, but I don't think anyone is fully able to evaluate in test mode," he said.

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