Move over, GoDaddy and Yahoo: There's a new player in the low-cost Web-hosting arena, and its name is Microsoft. And be warned: the Redmond giant isn't just offering hosting. For no money, Microsoft will register your domain name, host your Web site, give you and your employees e-mail accounts, let you store files online, and even give you tools to manage your business.
Yes, there's a catch—some levels of service will eventually entail a monthly charge, and the remaining free plan will be ad-supported — but for small businesses looking to establish a Web presence now and perhaps expand that down the road, Office Live has a lot to offer.
Because Microsoft chose to call its new suite of hosted applications Office Live, we have to spend a moment clearing up what it is not: Office Live does not deliver an online version of the company's word processor, spreadsheet, presentation package and other business-productivity apps found in the familiar desktop Office suite.
Perhaps, in time, the company will roll out those components as part of the over-arching Net strategy Bill Gates announced last year. (At least, that's the only rationale we can think of as to why the company would chance such confusion on the name.) What you do get is a set of Web, communication and business-management tools.
The Office Live Dashboard gives you a one-screen overview of calendar entries, customers and projects.
(Click for larger image).
First Step: Get on the Web
The idea behind Office Live is to provide small businesses with a Web presence plus other online tools. You might think that most businesses already have at least a Web site, but according to IDC, nearly half of the 6.8 million small businesses in the U.S. don't yet have a one. And with fewer people using the local yellow pages and more using search sites to find, say, "San Francisco plumber," that puts proprietors with no site at all at a disadvantage.
Office Live delivers free domain-name registration (typically $10 to $25 per year through other services) as well as free Web hosting (typically about $10 a month and up). Do note that, during Office Live's "beta" period (through late 2006), there is no e-commerce support such as a shopping cart or other way to take orders. So if you want to get started on the Web now and actually sell things on your site, Office Live is not for you.
But if all you need is a simple site to showcase your business, Office Live has the tools to help you accomplish that. After you register your domain name, the online Site Designer tools will guide you through creating your site. You can choose from one of 25 industry-specific templates (advertising and marketing, construction, real estate, retail store, and so on) and one of 10 layouts (different arrangements of boxes where your main body text, links, and graphics will appear). You then choose a color scheme from the 35 options.
You can't add text in the Site Designer UI itself. To do that, you close the Site Designer and enter the Page Tools interface, which shows the three main zones of your pages. Clicking on a zone opens another window where you can type or paste text and assign type attributes. We would prefer to work directly in the top-level Site Designer UI to accomplish all of this, rather than have the program spawn all these separate windows.
Similarly, inserting your own photo in place of the stock photos offered in the Site Designer takes a couple more steps than it should. Rather than simply clicking an image box and then browsing to the My Pictures folder on your local hard drive, you first have to upload images to the online Image Gallery. This requires you to first install the Image Uploader control. It's not hard, but the multiple steps are a bit of a nuisance.
The template-driven Site Designer tool lets you quickly put together a basic Web site.
(Click for larger image).
Expect to spend the better part of a day (at least) getting your site to where you want it. The good news, though, is that you won't need to hire someone to build a basic site. That said, if you already have a site, there's no way to import it into Office Live. You'll have to rebuild it from scratch.
One unexpected touch is the site metrics tools Office Live provides. You can measure your site's traffic, see returning visitors and even see which sites visitors were referred from.
Second Step: Explore Business Applications
Once your site is done, you'll spend most of your time in Office Live in the Business Applications area of the service. The online nature of Office Live means you can open this area up to all members of your staff (if you so choose), and people can access it from any Web browser.
When working in the Business Applications area, a handy Dashboard gives you a top-level view of your business. A Calendar (your choice of monthly, weekly or daily views) is front and center with a Customers area and Projects area to the right. You choose My View to see items that pertain just to yourself, or the Company View to see entries made by all members of your organization.
In the calendar, a handy "Link to Outlook" button creates a new Business Applications calendar in Outlook (it coexists with your personal calendar there), so you can see Office Live entries even if you're working with the desktop version of Outlook. Similarly, the Business Contacts area lets you import contacts from an existing Outlook database. We uploaded our virtual Rolodex of about 150 contacts in mere seconds.
The Customers tab in the Business Applications is an entry-level CRM application where you and your team can track clients, accounts and opportunities. For example, the Accounts area shows active accounts (the whole company's or just yours), your business contacts and opportunities you want to track. Accounts can be sorted by territory, by rating or by activity level.
Drilling down into the Opportunities area shows all potential deals for the entire company, an individual's opportunities and closed sales. You can enter the probability of closing a deal, the stage the deal is at and the estimated revenue and close date. All told, while the tools here aren't as powerful or polished as a full-blown CRM application, they might be good enough for many small businesses.
Similarly, the Sales area of Business Applications lets you track active and inactive campaigns, as well as revenue and costs associated with them. Office Live also lets you upload and store sales collateral (price sheets, brochures and so on) so field sales people can access them as needed. You can also keep track of inventory and let sales reps see prices, quantities on hand and other vital information in real time.
But Office Live is not just for sales-oriented businesses. The Projects area lets you enter and track the status of various projects. You can set and see milestones, see and assign tasks and detail any issues with a project. And an employees tab lets you post an employee directory, track employees' expenses, enter information about prospective hires, set up training courses and track enrollment and even enter billable hours.
While this sounds like a lot—and it is, with 22 Business Applications tools in total — Office Live's judicious use of tabs and sub-tabs helps to organize the tools and keep screen clutter to a minimum.
Third Step: Share the Info with Others
If Office Live had stopped there, there would be enough to keep most business owners happy. But Microsoft has also added basic (but useful) online storage and collaboration tools. The Shared Sites area lets you store and share information and documents with coworkers, vendors and customers.
Shared Sites essentially repeats many of the apps found in the Business Applications area, but here they are accessible to outsiders (with permissions set by you). There's a Customer Workspace area, Projects area and a Document Library where you can upload files. Unfortunately, the apps here don't share data with those found in your main Business Applications area. If you want to share the status of a project you're tracking with a customer, be sure to build it in the Shared Sites area; if you build it in your private Business Applications area and later want to make it public, you have to rebuild it.
And E-Mail, Too
One area that we found less integrated than we would have liked (at least in this beta stage) is the Web-based e-mail application, called Microsoft Office Live Mail. You and your employees each get an e-mail account (firstname.lastname@example.org, not some less-professional looking Hotmail address) with 2GB of storage each. Unfortunately, clicking on the Inbox from the Office Live main page pops you into a whole new user interface. The top-level navigation pane on the left disappears, and to get back to Office Live, you need to click on the text link at the bottom of the page. Worse, contacts you entered into Office Live do not automatically appear in Live Mail, nor do Office Live calendar entries propagate to the Calendar found in Live Mail.
Plans and Pricing
Microsoft offers three levels of service under the Office Live umbrella. All are free during the beta period, but that will change for the top two tiers when the service officially launches late this year.
Office Live Basics gives you free Web hosting for sites up to 30MB in size. You can upload and download up to 10GB a month of stored and shared documents, and you get up to five e-mail accounts (2GB of storage each, with an attachments size limit of 10MB). But you don't get the more than 20 business tools. This service will remain free after the beta period ends, but you'll need to put up with some online ads (they won't appear on your public-facing Web site, just on the pages you visit to access Office Live).
Office Live Essentials ($29.95 per month after the beta period ends) gives you the business tools and is ad-free. You also get higher storage limits and up to 50 e-mail accounts, and you can add users and storage space as needed for an incremental monthly fee.
Office Live Collaboration ($29.95 per month) is the right choice for businesses that already have a hosted Web site, but want access to the service's online workspace and business-management tools.
Those are certainly reasonable prices for all that Office Live delivers. So if you've been thinking you should leverage the Web to expand or manage your business, now is the time to try it. During the free beta period, you only have to invest your time.
Jamie Bsales is an award-winning technology writer and editor with nearly 14 years of experience covering the latest hardware, software and Internet products and services.
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