Microsoft Office Live, a set of Web-based services aimed at small businesses, is a compelling offering for organizations that lack the IT expertise, time or money to manage an e-mail server, Web site or collaboration platform.
eWEEK Labs got an early look at the first Office Live beta, which became available Feb. 15. Access to the beta requires an invitation from Microsoft as well as a product key. (For more information and to register, go to www.officelive.com.)
There are three versions of Office Live: Office Live Basics, Office Live Collaboration and Office Live Essentials, the version we tested. When the Office Live service goes, well, officially live later this year, the Basics version will be free; Collaboration and Essentials will be priced starting at $29.95 a month. Organizations that choose to take advantage of Office Live Basics should keep in mind that it will be supported by advertising.
Office Live Basics provides a company domain name; five e-mail accounts with 2GB of storage each; a Web site with 30MB of disk space; a Web site builder; and Microsoft Office Live Site Reports, a tool that will help small-business owners understand the traffic their Web site is generating.
Office Live Collaboration targets small businesses that already have an online presence, offering applications such as Project Management and Customer Contact Manager that compete with the likes of Intuits QuickBase, Sage Softwares ACT and WebExs WebOffice. Using SharePoint Services technology, Office Live Collaboration also will allow small businesses to build password-protected sites for secure collaboration on documents and shared data.
Office Live Essentials includes all the features of Office Live Basics and Office Live Collaboration. Essentials also provides more sophisticated Web site design tools, 50 e-mail accounts, a Web site with 50MB of disk space and more advanced Web site analytics.
All versions of Office Live require Internet Explorer 5.5 or higher, Microsoft Office 2000 or later and Windows XP. When we tried to access Office Live via Firefox, we were directed to an IE download page. We asked Microsoft officials if additional browsers would be supported in the future, and they said they would listen to customer requests and determine if theres such a need.
Using an existing Microsoft Passport account, we logged into our Office Live Essentials account and were prompted to create a Web site domain or to provide a domain if we already had one. After we provided a new domain (www.eweekbenchmarks.com), Office Live checked to see if it was available, registered the domain and confirmed that the domain was active 24 hours later. Every page of a Web site built using Office Live will sport a logo showing that the site is hosted by Microsoft Office Live.
Using SharePoint Services technology, Office Live Essentials and Collaboration subscribers have access to a Shared Sites capability that will allow them to create online workspaces where users inside and outside the company can share information and collaborate. Users can set permissions for each site, ensuring, for example, that customers see only data relevant to their project.
This component of the Office Live service is perhaps the most valuable—SharePoint-like capabilities can provide big returns to a company, but such applications can feel like luxuries for resource-strapped organizations.
From the Member Center page (the hub of the service), we were able to create as many as 50 e-mail accounts for our domain name (such as email@example.com). Once the account was created, an e-mail message was sent to each new account with a link to sign in to Office Live.
Office Live Mail uses the current Hotmail infrastructure, but Microsoft has said that Office Live Mail will eventually have the functionality of Microsoft Live Mail, the AJAX version of Hotmail thats now in limited beta. Office Live Basics supports 10MB-file attachments, while Office Live Essentials supports attachments up to 20MB.
We could also access our Office Live Essentials e-mail account from Outlook. This allowed us to synchronize online and offline versions of our e-mail and calendar.
Office Live Basics and Office Live Essentials provide Web site design tools that will help users quickly put up a Web site and then manage that Web site.
More interesting, however, are the surprisingly sophisticated site reports that users can get from the service: Both Basics and Essentials provide Web site data including total page views, hourly statistics and most requested pages, as well as information on the browser versions and operating systems site visitors are using.
Office Live Essentials takes things a step further with tools that allow users to find out which Web sites are referring the most traffic, as well as what key words and search engines are being used to find the site. With search engine optimization being such a big business, the ability to key in on key words is a huge advantage.
Microsoft Office Live Business Applications
Office Live Collaboration and Office Live Essentials subscribers have access to some 30 online tools for managing company, customer, project, sales and employee information. All of these tools share data with each other, and the Office Live Today Dashboard—available with both the Collaboration and Essentials editions-—can be customized to provide a view of data from any or all business applications.
All of the Office Live applications integrate with Microsoft Office Outlook, Word and Excel. During tests, we successfully exported data from Office Live into Excel spreadsheets, for example.
Office Live Collaboration and Essentials provide two customer-related business applications: a contact manager and a customer support tool. After populating our contact manager with accounts, business contacts and opportunities, we were able to access customer lists and information on prospective customers, as well as assign tasks associated with sales opportunities. The customer support application allows a small business to track frequently asked questions and customer support issues.
Other applications included with the Collaboration and Essentials versions of Office Live include a project manager, which allows users to track projects and their status, and a sales application that enables users to track sales and marketing campaigns.
Employee-centric applications include an employee directory, a place for employees to submit expense reports and a tool to track work hours for projects. Broader applications include group calendars, tools that track company assets and a document library where data such as HR policies can be shared.
Senior Writer Anne Chen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.