Microsoft’s Ambitious Online Suite

If yours is among the 50 percent of small businesses that don’t yet have a Web presence, Microsoft wants you. It wants you so badly, in fact, it’s willing to register your domain name and host your Website for free. Plus, it’ll throw in Web-based design tools and templates so you can build your site, as well as business-class e-mail (meaning, not some unprofessional-looking Hotmail account) for up to 25 people.

Is there a catch? Sure: The Redmond giant is hoping you’ll like its Microsoft Office Live online services suite so much that you’ll upgrade to one of its paid monthly service plans. But that’s not the worst thing in the world. Once you get comfortable with the ASP (application service provider) model for your Website and e-mail, the other services Office Live offers will probably seem pretty appealing.

Microsoft Office Live screen shot
Microsoft Office Live’s clean home page makes it easy to navigate to the service’s various modules.
(Click for larger image)

As we’ve noted before, Office Live has no relation to Microsoft Office (except for an Outlook-like e-mail component), and you don’t get word-processing or spreadsheet functionality as the Office moniker implies — at least not yet. We can’t imagine that the service’s use of the “Office” name was an accident. And with archrival Google offering those features online, we can’t imagine Microsoft sitting that one out.

But even without productivity apps, Office Live is certainly an ambitious undertaking — both for Microsoft and a small business owner who commits to the platform. It delivers business-class Web-based e-mail, Website hosting and development, online collaboration and calendaring, online accounting, online file storage and sharing, entry-level CRM and project management, and more.

That fairly daunting list is made more manageable by a clean, consistent interface across all the different modules, featuring “dashboards” that give you an overview in each area and clearly labeled tabs for access to more specific areas of a module. And an omnipresent, context-sensitive Resource Center pane on the right hand side of the screen provides links to articles and advice about the topic at hand. So you can start with the e-mail and Web features, then incorporate other aspects as your comfort level grows.

Good, Better, Best
There are three Office Live service levels, delivering more features at each price point. The free Office Live Basic gives you domain-name registration, Website hosting (for a site up to 500MB in size), online Web design tools, site reports, 25 e-mail accounts (each with 2GB of mail storage), online calendar and instant messaging. While the price is right, note that member-facing pages (but not your public-facing Website) will display third-party ads placed by Microsoft, and that tech support is limited to online chat and e-mail requests (no phone calls, please).

Stepping up to Office Live Essentials ($19.95 per month) gets you phone tech support, plus 1GB of storage space for your site, 50 e-mail accounts with the ability to sync with desktop Outlook, shared workspaces and business applications (with 500MB of storage) for up to 10 users, and Office Business Contact Manager (an entry-level CRM app).

Office Live Premium (which we tested) costs $39.95/month and gives you 2GB of storage for your Website, plus business app and workspace access for up to 20 people (with 1GB of storage). You also get access to Office Live’s project-management, document-management and time-management modules.

Getting Started
Setting up an account is easy. You’ll be prompted to enter a password and your preferred Website name. The service then checks to see if that URL is available; if it’s already taken, it offers similar alternatives that aren’t. Once you land a URL, you can pick your e-mail address and enter other business information.

Subsequent visits bring you to a clean login screen (reminiscent of the Windows XP login screen). Enter your password, and you are ready to start working. At the top of the Office Live home page is a box titled “Get started on Office Live,” with links to relevant articles for newcomers: Five steps to get started (adding users and setting permissions, setting up e-mail for your organization, building your Website, submitting your site to search engines, and working with the Business Applications and Workspaces).

That box also contains links to a Website overview, getting started with e-mail, business applications overview and a download link to Office Accounting Express 2007, Microsoft’s recent free online accounting program for small business

If you actually read the manual before delving into a product, this area is for you. The rest of us will jump right into the boxes dedicated to each area of the service: E-mail, Website, Business Applications, and Workspaces (where you store, mange, and share information with others). If you need help, the Resource Center box offers help. Microsoft has done a good job with this top-level user interface, letting you pick which areas to delve into first.

Working with E-mail
Probably the most-used portion of Office Live will be the e-mail module. Clicking on the e-mail tab on the home page pops up an MSN HotMail login, where you need to renter your e-mail address and password. The look of this screen is different from the rest of Office Live, and it’s somewhat annoying to have to log in again. But past this login screen, the Office Live interface returns.

Microsoft Office Live screen shot
Office Live’s Web-based e-mail user interface resembles Outlook. (Click for larger image).

The mail app resembles Outlook (a good thing), with folders listed on the far left, message headers in a column to the right of that, and the reading pane to display the selected message occupying the rest of the screen. An options button lets you tweak this view to have the reading pane below the message list or to remove it entirely (meaning you’ll need to open a message to see its contents).

Also like Outlook, well-marked icons above the message list let you create, reply, forward, delete and print messages with a click. In creating a message, you can change the font style and size, create numbered or bulleted lists, highlight text, spell check and add emoticons. Office Live is more powerful in this regard than other Webmail products and much more like desktop Outlook.

If you are set on using Outlook proper as your mail interface, you can download Outlook Connector, which, if you have Outlook 2002 or better, lets you access and manage Office Live Mail accounts via the desktop app. A handy wizard (accessible via the Options link in the upper right of the contacts page) purports to let you import all or selected contacts (up to 992 of them) from Outlook or Outlook Express to Office Live, but this feature was not yet working in the week following the service’s launch (Microsoft reported it was having server issues).

We ran into a few other issues, as well. To add an e-mail’s recipients to your contact list, you need to click on that name from the list you are presented with after you hit send, rather than a more intuitive “add recipients to contact list” button in the compose pane. (And again, when we tried it, we got an error message). If you want sent messages to be saved, be sure to click the “Save sent messages” link the first time you compose a message — by default, they are not saved. Finally, the ‘Move to” button lets you move a message to the default Junk Mail, Drafts, Sent or Deleted Items folders; it does not offer the choice of adding a new folder—a drawback if you’re obsessed with categorizing their e-mail.

Web Site Design
Office Live’s second big selling point is its ability to get any business online quickly, with minimum fuss. To get started, click on the Design Site link in the Website panel, which takes you to a Page Manager view that shows a list of your site’s pages. By default, Office Live sets up an About Us, Contact Us, Home and Site Map pages. Click on the Edit link to launch the design tool and make your changes.

The two-tab designer, one labeled Page Editor and the other Site Designer, lets you start playing without any training. In the Page Editor tab, you type over or cut-and-paste desired text. Then choose your desired fonts and colors, add images and even pop on handy “modules” (such as a contact-us link, directions, slideshow, the local weather) to make your site more useful to visitors.

The Site Designer tab lets you choose your site’s theme from a range of industries (advertising and marketing, clothing and fashion, food and beverage, real estate and 21 others) and layout style (more than 20 choices) and color scheme (more than 30). Clicking on the choices in any of these areas instantly applies the change to your site. If you like it, hit save; if not, pick another.

Considering how easy the tool is to use, most people should be satisfied with the results. There are enough options (150,000 in all) that you can personalize and distinguish your site. The designer is clearly aimed at site-building novices, not full-fledged Web developers; so don’t expect to be creating eye-popping graphics or Flash animations within it. If you subscribe to Office Live Essentials or Premium, you import an existing site into Office Live (this feature wasn’t available in the public beta version of the service).

Microsoft Office Live screen shot
With its pre-set templates, themes, and color schemes, Office Live’s Website design tool makes it easy to build you site. (Click for larger image).

Office Live now offers full e-commerce support — another feature not previously available in the beta version. You can have a shopping cart and take credit card and PayPal payments. And you can tie transactions into the Office Accounting Express module.

More importantly, Office Live will help people find your site on the Web. The Resource Center has articles that help you determine if the major search engines have indexed your site, and if they haven’t, it has articles that teach you how to do so. An even more proactive approach is the new Office Live adManager tool. With adManager, you can buy relevant keywords from the major search engines. Referred to as search engine optimization, this helps to drive targeted traffic to your site.

Informative site reports let you see what’s working on your site and which areas need improvement. For example, you can see the number of site visits, page views and unique visitors. Search engine reports show you the search engines and keywords that are driving traffic to your site.

Business Applications
Office Live’s third push (for Essentials and Premium subscribers) is its suite of online applications to help you run your business more efficiently.

Foremost among them is Business Contact Manager. Once you’ve landed customers or interested parties through your site, BCM helps you retain them. Essentially a bare-bones CRM program, the module lets you track prospects, follow-up tasks and more. You can use BCM to manage marketing and sales tasks (to keep the leads coming) and customer care. For example, you can set an alert that will remind you to follow-up with a given individual at a future time, to keep possible sales from getting lost in the shuffle.

A Time Manager module in the Business Applications area lets you set up a shared online calendar for your employees, track schedules, among other tasks. A Project Manager module lets you set up and assign tasks for several projects and track the progress of each at a glance.

The handy Document Management center gives you a central repository (accessible to all your employees wherever they happen to be) for your business documents. You can of course set permissions for documents, so only certain individuals can access a document or make changes. You can also use this space as storage for images (company logos, photos for printed materials and for the Web site) that several people may need access to.

Granted, none of these are best-of-breed products. But the fact that they are gathered in one workspace and accessible through the same login you use for your e-mail, makes them more convenient than standalone desktop or online apps — and increases the likelihood that you’ll actually use them.

Microsoft designed Office Live as an open platform, and the company reports that 75 partners are currently developing add-ons to deliver niche tools to extend Office Live’s functionality. You can expect to see tools tailored to restaurant owners, non-profit groups and other industries in the coming year.

Collaboration Spaces
Office Live also offers a venue for people inside and outside your company to collaborate online. The Workspaces module delivers a Team Workspace area where team members can post announcements, calendar items, important links and shared documents.

The Basic Meeting Workspace helps you plan and organize meetings and capture outcomes and action-items in a central place. When a team member sets a meeting, he or she can enter the meeting’s objectives, agenda and invitees, and then post any relevant documents (a PowerPoint presentation, for example) attendees might need for the meeting. A Wiki Workspace gives staff a way to quickly post ideas, links, or items of interest for all to see, without having to build a full-blown Website.

An outward-facing Customer Workspace module lets you share information, calendar items, links and shared documents with clients or other people outside of your organization. This can serve as a handy way to keep a client in the loop about the status of a project, without the need for a daily e-mail update as many client-centered businesses do now.

Microsoft Office Live has a lot going for it, namely its one-stop-shopping approach and unified interface. It isn’t as strong as other online services in internal- and client-facing collaboration (HyperOffice has it beat here) or CRM ( and offer better solutions). But it is a good start for small business owners just establishing a presence on the Web and who want to provide e-mail to employees without the cost of an in-house server-based setup.

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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