Microsoft offers $100K to testers of Office Live Workspace

Vendor uses sweepstakes to try to entice early users to try new online document service

To try to spur interest in its upcoming Office Live Workspace service, Microsoft plans to announce this week that it is running a sweepstakes in the US with a US$100,000 grand prize for US beta testers of the Web-based document storage and collaboration offering.

Microsoft also said that it has added several new features to Office Live Workspace, a free service that is aimed at individual users and small businesses. The software vendor describes the service as an "online extension" of Office that has been integrated with the XP, 2003 and 2007 versions of the market-leading desktop applications suite.

As part of the sweepstakes, Microsoft plans to give out a total of 30,000 prizes between now and May 11. In addition to the grand prize, the booty that will be distributed includes 300 Xbox 360s, 500 Samsung BlackJack II mobile phones, 200 30GB Zune media players, 400 Expedia travel vouchers worth $300 each, and several thousand other Microsoft software and hardware products. Most of the prizes are more prosaic, though: about 23,000 will consist of soft drink coupons, while another 1,000 will be US$10 gift cards to an unidentified "specialty coffee retailer."

Anyone can now sign up to try Office Live Workspace, which had only been available only to a limited number of early users since December. But only US residents who are at least 18 years old are eligible for the prizes. Testers can sign up for both the service and the sweepstakes on Microsoft's Web site.

Office Live Workspace lets users view documents but not create or edit them. In order to do the latter tasks, people still need to use Office or other types of software, such as products that can create PDF files or JPEGs. By contrast, online suites such as Google Docs, Zoho Office and ThinkFree Office offer document creation, editing and sharing capabilities for free or for a relatively low cost.

But those services lack full compatibility and integration with Office, which has about 500 million users worldwide, according to Microsoft.

Guy Gilbert, a senior product manager at Microsoft, said the new features added to the service since then include an activity panel that lets users see at a glance what is happening within workspaces, including changes made to shared documents offline. Users also now can get updates about changes via e-mail and eventually will be able to be notified as part of their RSS feeds, which would enable to them to track changes in their reader software.

In addition, beta-testers can now create permanent links to shared workspaces, making it easier to invite potential collaborators to view documents, according to Gilbert. However, he added that for the time being, the links will be lengthy and can't be written in plain English.

Asked how he felt Office Live Workspace compares against Google's also-still-in-beta Google Docs service, Gilbert said, "Of course, we rate ourselves very well. But we're well aware that customers are asking us to do more. So the service will continue to progress."

Microsoft will take Office Live Workspace out of beta when the "quality is ready," Gilbert said, declining to be more specific. Both free and paid versions of the service will be available at that time, he said, noting that the latter may offer a larger storage capacity or more advanced collaboration features.

The Office Live Workspace beta also is being offered as part of Microsoft's free Live@edu program for colleges, universities and K-12 school systems. The company claims that more than 600 schools in 40 countries have signed up to use the hosted Live@edu services since the program was initially launched in March 2005.

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