Office Live Small Business goes a la carte

The new version of Microsoft's small business Web services bundle offers new and mostly free features.

Create a Web site

MOLSB's most attractive feature is its ability to help users quickly and easily create and update a Web site (hosting included). A user-friendly interface makes it easy to choose simple layouts, pick color schemes and add content easily. MOLSB updates the navigation menus automatically as you add or remove pages.

An image gallery offers a place to centrally store graphics files that can, with a couple of clicks, be placed on any page, and you can stock your document gallery with files (such as brochures or price lists) that can be displayed on your site. The image gallery is required if you want to put any images on your site -- and you must install the Image Uploader applet first.

The site designer is perfect for small-business owners who lack the experience, technical skills or time needed to learn even basic Web coding and can't afford (or aren't willing to pay for) a professional Web designer. This is truly a simple, do-it-yourself approach to building a Web site that can yield professional-looking results. MOLSB users don't need to know about HTML tags to position a product feature table on a page, they don't have to worry about find a hosting service or register a domain name, and they need no knowledge of FTP to make changes.

This ease of use comes at a price, though. The editor's simplicity will frustrate experienced users who aren't afraid of HTML -- you can't view or modify the underlying HTML of the pages you create within the Web design tool. For example, if you enter a product description on a page, you can't see the HTML for that text. You can't add a tag to, say, add italics to a word or phrase; instead, you must use the editor to select the text and click the Italics tool-bar button.

There are, however, new ways to incorporate HTML. For instance, you can include code snippets from other sources via a pop-up text window, and you can activate the advanced features, including the ability to use third-party design tools instead of the built-in designer. I must issue a big caveat, however -- choose this option from the start. Although you can upload your entire site from a third-party tool, MOLSB wipes out anything you created with its designer. Ouch.

One limitation of the previous Office Live Web editor was that you could enter header and footer information but not modify its layout. You can now customize the cascading style sheet, add site information (a title and slogan), save a page as a template and even create a custom form. Experienced users can create a form or list and control it with JavaScript, but Microsoft advises using this feature only if you understand XML schemas and XSL coding.

Among other improvements in this release are support for Firefox 2.0 for both Mac and PC (at last), a link to Windows Live Spaces blogs to incorporate blog content into your site and an updated Slide Show module that lets you add captions for up to 50 rotating images to your site. Your Web page can also include content from a variety of included modules. For example, you can add a map with driving directions, a list of stock quotes and local weather (with optional four-day forecast).

Integration is also dramatically improved in this version. For instance, you can maintain an employee list in the contact manager and automatically update a staff list (with selected fields only) to your Web site, so customers can view the e-mail or phone numbers of your staff. Change a phone number of an employee in the contact manager, and the number is automatically updated on your Web site.

One feature I would still like to see is a simple Undo feature to encourage experimentation. Without it, undoing some actions can take more effort than it should, such as removing a table inserted in error is a hassle.

Included at no cost are 500MB of Web site storage (you can purchase an additional 5GB for US$14.95) plus unlimited bandwidth. If you already have a domain, you can point it to your MOLSB site at no charge.

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Richard Ericson

Computerworld
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