By Stephanie N. Mehta
December 8, 2009

Tech’s top vendors see small companies as a big opportunity.

Software giant Microsoft (msft) tops a new ranking of technology companies effectively serving small businesses online by providing a rich, educational web experience for small companies.

Compass Intelligence, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based consulting firm, analyzes the websites of dozens of tech companies – and interviews small business owners and executives – to come up with its rankings, which it publishes twice each year.

Microsoft leaped to the No. 1 ranking from No. 6 in the first quarter of 2009, essentially switching places with computer maker Dell (DELL) which slipped to No. 6 from the top spot in the first quarter. (Remember, the Compass rankings look at just one part of the tech company’s small-business strategy: online reach. All these companies also work through resellers, local affiliates and even have direct sales folks marketing to and servicing small entities.)

That said, the top ten, in order, are:

  1. Microsoft
  2. AT&T
  3. Cisco
  4. HP
  5. IBM
  6. Dell
  7. Verizon
  8. Sprint Nextel
  9. Nortel
  10. Symantec

“All these companies are commited and focused on the [small-to-medium sized business market](in different ways),” Kneko Burney, chief strategist for Compass, writes in an e-mail. ” They all ‘get’ small business.”

And that may prove to be smart business. Compass estimates that U.S. small businesses – companies with 20 to 100 employees – will spend more than $230 billion on technology in 2009. And a separate new report suggests smaller companies are loosening their purse strings on tech spending even as large enterprises remain cautious.

The Global Technology Distribution Council, a consortium of technology distributors such as Arrow Electronics (arw) and Avnet (avt), last week said its members’ U.S. sales in the third quarter rose 10.7% over the second quarter.

Large companies “have cut back tech spending, and they’re still hunkered down,” observes consortium CEO Tim Curran. “SMB (small to medium business) in this instance seems to be a leading indicator of companies starting to invest.”

Curran said his members, which serve value-added resellers and other “channels” that, in turn, directly sell to smaller firms, have been seeing particular interest in investing in security solutions and cloud computing services that deliver business software and other applications over the Internet.

Even tech executives who deal primarily with the very largest global companies are talking about their companies’ ability to serve small-business clients.

“We have a porfolio that fully meets what small businesses need,” says Ann Livermore, executive vice president of HP (hp) Enterprise, a $54 billion-a-year unit that includes consulting, hardware and software sales to businewsses of all sizes. Adds Livermore: “You’ll see us being very focused” on the segment.

Entrepreneurs also rely heavily on mobile technology to run their companies. Today there are hundreds of mobile applications that enabling small biz executives to operate while on the go (everything from an application for sending and tracking FedEx (fdx) packages to an app that turns an Apple (aapl)  iPhone into a voice recorder).

No wonder a Yankee Group study released in September found 28% of small businesses said “smartphone implementation” — the deployment and upgrade of Internet-enabled mobile devices – was their top tech priority in the next 12 months.

Small businesses reliance on mobile means wireless operators have an opportunity to expand their relationship with small businesses, perhaps acting as a distributor for other tech companies’ hardware and software or even offering integration and other services in competition with companies such as HP and Dell.

In many ways, the telcos are already seizing the small-business opportunity. AT&T (t) is the No. 2 company on the Compass Intelligence report. “What I love about AT&T is that they are very aggressive in rolling out new “cloud” services tailored just for this market,” Burney writes.  “They are focused on providing a suite of services to enable these customers using the power of the network. That’s definitely the future.”

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