Office Live needs a makeover

First, I've got to do a quick correction on the Daylight Saving Time (DST) snafu I wrote about in my previous column -- even though by the time you read this, there's a good chance the whole mess is already over. It turns out that Redmond is trying to help its customers to negotiate this truly goofy problem. Microsoft has put numerous product engineers and support people on a DST-only team.

Folks with the right kind of application support can reach these guys to avoid a daylight nightmare.

Unfortunately, that doesn't do people a lot of good at this late date. The problems are thorny; some require software patch installs in order to complete the job, so you can imagine that the wait line for these services is discouragingly long right now. And it's not free. Rumor also has it that you're dishing out a flat fee of US$4,000 per app. Ouch. Then again, it wasn't as though I was expecting it to be free.

'Nuff said on that. Next comes Office Live. We've been using Office Live as an experiment for our small software company. Mainly we're using it for e-mail, shared doc repository, and similar stuff. Frankly, I'm not as impressed with it after a couple of months of use as I was when I saw the demo .

First problem is e-mail. The thing wants Outlook as the target e-mail client and then won't integrate with your main inbox, but rather kicks off a whole new inbox of its own. I was expecting the preferential treatment of Outlook, but the lack of flexibility in how you can receive mail inside of Outlook is a tad disappointing.

Then there's the sheer usability of the site. Firstly, it's not as stable as it should be. Microsoft keeps sending me press releases showing that gobs and gobs of users have jumped onto Office Live, which is great for Redmond but apparently affects reliability for the folks using it. We haven't lost any data -- I'd have been spitting nails over that -- but you get kicked off occasionally, and that Passport login/logout process only works some of the time.

Uploading documents is also a somewhat hit-or-miss proposition -- again, no data loss, but having to upload a doc twice or more can really chap my posterior.

Then there's screen design. So far, Google is spanking Microsoft's rump with a broomstick in that department. Example: A console to something like Office Live should look like a console: dashboards, lists of users currently online, chat window in the bottom right-hand corner, stuff like that. Instead, it looks like a Web page advertising the Office Live service. Finding what you're looking for means digging around in sub-menus. One-click shortcuts right off the top page is not unrealistic for this application and should be up there by default.

And simply the way the apps are organized is unintuitive. To use a shared document repository, for example, doesn't mean clicking on something obvious, like Document Library. It means creating a team "workspace" (a synonym for meeting) and uploading a set of docs specific to that workspace. I get that Microsoft is trying to give us more granular control over who sees what, but it's completely unintuitive for a product that's supposed to be geared for rank beginners. And if you want a look at all your uploaded docs, you'll most likely be clicking through multiple workspaces.

Microsoft needs to redesign Office Live -- and the sooner the better. I'm not a fan of useless eye-candy, but if you look at how Google or Yahoo are using eye-candy technology to better organize their Web 2.0 interfaces, you can see that Microsoft is seriously lacking. Hell, the company says it invented AJAX. Why not use it a little?

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Oliver Rist

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