Office Live Beta Puts SOHOs Online

Microsoft's new Office Live online service for small businesses helps Web novices build sites and share data with very little trouble. (Courtesy: Small Business Pipeline)

February 22, 2006

9 Min Read
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On February 15, 2006, Microsoft unveiled its Office Live online service for small businesses (defined as those with up to 10 employees). Don’t be confused by the name — Office Live has little to do with the Microsoft Office suite. It's directed to the small business wishing to build a site and/or share data with co-workers, customers, and partners.

Office Live Basics is all about developing a Web presence without HTML experience.

The service comes in three flavors. Office Live Basics is the best bargain of the bunch. It includes Web building, e-mail, and hosting (all for free, including domain registration). Collaboration includes the ability to build intranets (to share information with co-workers) and extranets (to share information with the outside world, such as customers, vendors, or partners), but it includes no Web-site tools. The Essentials version combines Basics and Collaboration.

As of this writing, the betas of all three are available for free; once they are out of beta, both Collaboration and Essentials will begin at $29.95/month. According to Microsoft's FAQ, the company is making its money by selling advertising on some of the member pages — however, it says, the ads will not appear on users' sites.

Getting Down to Basics
Office Live Basics is all about developing a Web presence without HTML experience. You can build a multi-page Web site by choosing a domain name (which Microsoft registers for you), and picking a design (arranged by business types, such as “real estate” and “pet supplies”). Select a graphic theme and color scheme, and the program builds a sample site, pre-populated with text and graphics that you then can replace.There are 13 pre-defined page templates, including, for example, About Us, Company Calendar, FAQ, Press Releases, and Site Map. Each template has some skeleton text filled in that you can replace, and components that are suitable for that type of page. However, you can build any kind of text-and-image page you want.

An Office Live Web page is divided into three sections, called zones, and you can select from a variety of pre-defined zone arrangements. You fill each zone with one or more Web Parts -- think of these as components that make up a Web page, such as text blocks, images, tables, or even a live weather report for a city of your choice.

Text editing is primitive. Five fonts and seven text sizes are available, and you can apply bold, italic, and underscore, use bullets and numbered lists, and insert links, horizontal lines, tables, or graphics -- but little else. The interface is designed for entering (or pasting) simple text or placing graphics rather than doing any HTML coding, and it’s enough to get those chores done. In fact, by keeping HTML completely inaccessible, it protects less talented or experienced site owners from lousing up their page. Creating A Business Site
Using Office Live, I created a sample site and, despite the editing limitations, and having to accept default formatting, I was satisfied with the results. I wasn't happy with ceding control to Office Live for default formatting — for example, you can’t control column widths because it’s all automatic — but the program does help ensure your site will be consistent across pages. (In the Office Live Essentials version, you can replace the editor with FrontPage.)

You can use your own images (such as a logo) after importing them to an Image Library. The Basics version allows you to store 30MB of text and graphics for your site (for Essentials that jumps to 50MB). Additional storage can be purchased in 50MB increments. Bandwidth is a respectable 10GB/month (Basics) or 25GB/month (Essentials); you can purchase an additional 25GB/month blocks.

Not having to deal with DNS settings and FTP programs to update a site should come as a big relief to small business owners. While many Web-building applications make it as easy as possible for novices to build a site and get it online, Office Live takes care of everything, from the domain name registration to the Web design. Just click some buttons, edit some text, and watch it magically appear on line.

Coupled with a feature that offers daily backup (and easy restore) and an extensive array of activity reports (such as number of visitors and top pages visited), Office Live Basics and Essentials offer a simple turnkey solution for building a small business Web site. You certainly can’t beat the price.

The Basics version includes five e-mail accounts for your chosen domain; messages are read and created from (what else?) Hotmail. Attachments are limited to 10MB, and you can store up to 2GB of messages. With Essentials you get 50 e-mail accounts: attachments can be as large as 20MB, and you can access a mailbox from Hotmail, Outlook, and Outlook Express. Extra groups of five e-mail accounts can be purchased for either version; Collaboration offers no e-mail accounts.Essentials: Collaboration Is Key

Essentials includes all the Web-building tools of Basics, then adds a collection of tools called Business Applications, including Contact Manager, Sales, Projects, Employee, and Calendar. These tools help you track companies and customers, manage project deadlines, store sales information, manage key employee data, and build a company calendar of events. Some information is shared among the applications — you can assign a customer to a project or assign a task to-do list item to an employee. (The Collaboration version includes the same Business Applications collection.)

The applications are extensively customizable. For example, the Customer Manager is perfectly adequate as is, but you can add your own fields, rearrange the field order on the data entry screen, select which data you wanted to see (and save those custom views for repeated viewing), and view or edit data one record at a time or in a columnar grid. The applications provide a one-way data exchange with Office applications: You can export data to Excel or Access, build a Pivot Table report, or create a chart in Excel. Sadly, there’s no import feature.There are five major applications:

  • Businesses will probably depend most on Contact Manager, which lets you set up Accounts (that is, companies) and their Business Contacts (people), tracking the basics such as addresses, phone numbers, and freeform notes.

  • The Sales application lets you manage marketing collateral (product spec sheets, company overviews, and the like) in one place.

  • The Projects component lets you track all your Project tasks, milestones, and deadlines.

  • The Employee application is a lot less robust. Its core component, which stores employee facts such as name and title, is reasonably useful, but the Training, Expense reporting, and Working Hours components are so underpowered or bafflingly tedious that I can’t recommend them. For example, Training keeps track of training classes and who enrolled, but not who completed them, so it’s not very useful in the real world.

  • The Calendar application lets you display a company calendar and an overview of data from Business Applications — a list of project milestones, for example. Because there is no integration between the calendar and the Project information, dates from the applications (such as milestone due dates) don’t flow to the calendar, which reduces its usefulness considerably.

    Essentials comes with a license for 10 users; you can buy additional five-packs. Storage space is limited to 50MB. Security is limited: You can assign a user to be an Administrator (to set up other accounts), Editor (to view and update information), or Reader (viewing rights only) — but only for all Business Applications as a whole.

    By accessing applications online rather than running from your hard drive, you’re likely to experience slight delays between the time you press the Enter key and when your screen is refreshed. That’s the trade-off of using software as a service. The big benefit: Updated information is immediately available to your co-workers. Shared Sites Stumbles
    Besides sharing data among your co-workers, Office Live includes a tool called Shared Sites that lets you share key information with customers or partners (in the same way that an extranet does). A Shared Site can let you view a document library and limited business information such as project status; the portal-like view makes organization and navigation easy.

    Building a Shared Site is confusing at first. That’s because while you can add a Project Web Part to a Shared Site, these aren’t the same Web Parts as from the Business Application’s Project application. Shared Sites use completely separate databases. Also, if you use a Shared Site to create a document library and include the same Word file in two such Sites, the file counts double toward your 50MB space limit. Worse, every customer or vendor you share a site with counts toward your 10-user initial allotment.

    Shared Sites are fine for document libraries, but the feature's lack of integration with the Business Applications means double-data entry, and that precludes their usefulness.

    Step Lively
    Office Live lives up to many of its promises. The Basics and Essentials versions let small business owners build a no-frills, no-cost Web site that looks good and doesn’t take a geek, Web consultant, or relative to get up and running. The Essentials and Collaboration versions make it possible to share key customer and company information among your co-workers using a decent set of productivity applications that don’t try to do too much, and a rudimentary tool (Shared Sites) for providing data online for select customers, vendors, or partners

    You can sign up for the beta, but you’ll need to wait in line for an invitation. Microsoft says they're rolling out the applications out in a controlled fashion in order to make sure the system capacity isn’t overtaxed. That makes sense to me. You’ll be asked to provide your credit card; according to Microsoft, this is "in order to validate that every customer is a legitimate entity." However, the company goes on to assure users that, when the beta test period is over, they will be asked for explicit permission to begin charging.

    Office Live offers everything that a novice Web builder needs in one place, with a simple interface, no technical details to master, and relatively good performance, so that you can get good results for very little effort and a very small learning curve. It cannot, of course, be judged against more sophisticated Web packages, and isn't appropriate for those who are looking to build complex sites; for example, it doesn't have forms or any type of e-commerce features (according to Microsoft, e-commerce support is planned for a release later in the year, but no details were available.)However, if you’re a small business owner looking for a way to build your Web presence and help your team share information, but don’t have the time and energy to find a non-techie solution, Office Live’s all-in-one approach can get you up and running in no time at all.

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