Microsoft to debut Office Live service

Microsoft will announce the free beta of its upcoming Office Live service for small businesses Wednesday and said it hopes to garner more than 100,000 beta users for it.

The premium versions of the Office Live service will likely cost less than the monthly bill for a cable broadband Internet subscription, the company said.

First announced last November by Microsoft's in-house software-as-a-service guru, Ray Ozzie, Office Live is a bit of a misnomer: The service does not replicate any of the features of Microsoft's Office suite of productivity software. Instead, it is, for now, a repackaging of services formerly offered via the MSN portal but targeted at small businesses.

The services in the Office Live Basics version, which will continue to be free after the service is officially launched late this year, include a Web domain name, Web site, tools to easily build such a site and market it, and company e-mail accounts. In exchange, users checking their e-mail or perusing their own Web sites will be exposed to Web ads delivered by Microsoft.

For its higher-end Microsoft Office Live Collaboration and Office Live Essentials versions, the beta versions will be free until the final release, said Dean Nicolls, senior product manager for Microsoft's Information Worker services division. Afterward, users will be charged a monthly fee that he said would likely be less than the average US$45 monthly cost for broadband access through Comcast Corp.

The higher-end versions include extra features. The Collaboration version includes password-protected intranet workspaces that use Microsoft's SharePoint Services technology and allow co-workers or business partners in remote locations to together edit a single Word or Excel document, avoiding the possibly confusing scenario where users edit and then e-mail each other the latest versions of documents or files. Users can also share contacts via Microsoft Outlook. The Essentials version offers more e-mail accounts, larger online storage and better tools for designing a Web site and tracking its visitors.

Microsoft Office Live "has potential," said Joe Wilcox, an analyst at JupiterResearch. "It certainly is in a market segment that is underserved."

According to JupiterResearch findings, only 4 percent of businesses with fewer than 10 employees have e-commerce Web sites. Only a third have basic informational Web sites.

However, Wilcox remained unconvinced that many small-business owners will find the real-time Internet collaboration tools useful.

"Old habits die hard," Wilcox said. "Microsoft would really need to communicate the benefits."

Office Live's most obvious competitor is Yahoo, which has long had a popular small-business portal that offers Web hosting, domain names, e-commerce, e-mail and Web marketing tools. Domain name registrars such as Network Solutions and Inc. offer similar services. Even Google is testing an enterprise-hosted version of its Gmail e-mail service. WebEx has long offered Internet meeting and collaboration tools.

All of the data uploaded to an Office Live site is firewall-protected and backed up every day, Nicolls said.

By final release, Microsoft plans to offer tools to help sites get indexed by search engines, as well as e-commerce functions, Nicolls noted. He said it "remains to be seen" whether Office Live will eventually offer some of the functionality of Microsoft Office.

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