Microsoft Office Live puts your business online

Microsoft's offering is a good first attempt to better serve the online needs of small businesses, but has a few rough edges

Microsoft's Office Live offers a mix of services for the small business looking to establish an online presence. In addition to Web site and e-mail account management, some editions of Office Live also deliver business services such as contact and time management, and facilitate sharing documents with customers.

Office Live is now a commercial product for U.S.-based users, following a prolonged beta test phase. But while Microsoft's offering is a good first attempt to better serve the online needs of small businesses, it has a few rough edges.

Limited design options

Office Live will appeal most to small businesses that do not have a Web site and want to establish and manage one. The design templates make it easy for neophytes to create and modify their own Web pages. Some interactive Web components, such as a forms submitter and a site search engine, are also included.

Office Live's Web Designer allows you to upload graphics as part of your Web page. Unfortunately, I found the service's Web Designer to be somewhat unreliable. It didn't always save my changes when I moved to another page, even after saying it had. And a professional Web site designer would chafe at the limited template options available. Office Live's Web Designer is far less capable than Microsoft's FrontPage application, which has been discontinued.

Office Live's services aren't especially unique. You can get most of them, such as Web and e-mail hosting, elsewhere. However, Office Live's suite of services does make an attractive bundle. The services are generally well-integrated, with the notable exception of adManager, an advertising service for promoting your Web site.

To use adManager, you must create a separate account and go through a sign-on procedure from within Office Live. It's as though adManager doesn't trust Office Live users, which is tantamount to Microsoft's right hand being wary of shaking its left. Unlike Office Live, adManager is still a beta service. Presumably, Microsoft will eliminate these clumsy procedures when adManager graduates from beta testing. I plan to review the service at that time.

Three versions, one free

Office Live comes in three editions.

The free advertising-supported Office Live Basics provides a domain name along with Web site storage that can hold up to 500MB of data and e-mail management for up to 25 accounts with 2GB of storage each.

Office Live Essentials (US$20 per month) boosts Web site storage to 1GB, allows 50 e-mail accounts, and adds online business contact management and workspaces where you can share information, such as Word documents and Excel spreadsheets, with your customers. This edition lets you import HTML files--perhaps from an existing Web site--and use more sophisticated third-party Web design tools, which are not included. You can also access e-mail and synchronize your contacts online with Microsoft Outlook on your PC.

Office Live Premium (US$40 per month) increases Web site storage to 2GB and adds more business applications to help you manage customers, employees, and projects. You can also use Office Accounting 2007 Express (a separate free download) to manage this business information offline and share it with your accountant.

The free Office Live Basics sounds tempting, but only a stingy business owner would permit Microsoft-supplied advertisements, possibly from competitors, to run on the company's Web site. Basics could work for personal Web sites; but for businesses it's really a come-on to promote Essentials, which offers good value for the money. As for Live Premium, I'm not persuaded that it delivers sufficient value to justify the extra 20 bucks a month.

Microsoft's Office Live paid versions offer free 30-day trials, so you can evaluate the services before you commit.

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