Contrary to what its name might suggest, Microsoft Office Live is not an online version of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook. Instead, this hosted suite provides businesses with a staff of 10 or fewer with tools to build and host a Web site, manage contacts, and share projects. For free, the Basic service provides a company with a domain name registration, hosting, and e-mail, along with Web design tools and reports on site traffic. (Our slide show of the beta version of Microsoft Office Live previewed the features.)
Why give away the store? Microsoft hopes to snag a large share of the market of small businesses still looking to develop a Web presence and manage operations via the Internet. Plus, its logo (linking to Office Live details, of course) will appear on your Web pages. Plans for keyword ads and online shopping are in the works. Google Apps, by comparison, doesn't offer a free Web site parking space, but it does let you brand online services with your own URL. Unlike Google Apps, Microsoft Office Live lacks a Web-based word processor and a spreadsheet application. Read here to see how Microsoft's and Google's office services compare.
The Microsoft Office Live comes in three flavors, starting with the free Basic, which offers site hosting and building, as well as e-mail support. The Essentials and Premium editions each provide a bundle of business apps, including AdManager, as well as mobile support. The $19.95/month Essentials edition adds more ways to analyze Web site traffic, along with 1GB of storage space, coordination with Outlook e-mail, and 50 e-mail accounts. For $39.95/month, Premium doubles the storage space.
Once you sign in and access the Microsoft Office Live Web page, it opens a screen that demands a domain name. There seems to be no way past this page, unfortunately, so you can't peek at any features without either registering a new domain name or transferring an existing one from your current host. Once you establish the domain name of your Web site, you reach a page loaded with options and tools presented in a two-pane interface that loosely resembles Microsoft Outlook.
You proceed with the Web Sites module by building a sample site using the Site Designer. The tool's drag-and-drop layout is straightforward and demands no coding, about as simple to figure out as other bare-bones page-building tools, such as those offered by Yahoo Small Business.
Beyond handling your Web site, Microsoft Office Live Essentials and Premium attempt to provide a one-stop shop for core business operations. We appreciated the sparse design of the Dashboard screen, which uses a two-pane layout and tabs to present a calendar and drop-down menus for Customers, Projects, Sales, Employees, and Company.
The 30 business apps included in the two paid packages can handle a sweeping array of chores, from keeping track of vendors to managing human resources. To attract customers, the AdManager service, similar to Google AdWords, lets you target keywords at Windows Live Search. Microsoft Office Live Essentials and Premium manage customer queries, competition, media attention, employees, sales leads, sales orders and estimates, and events. You can filter and customize data to suit your needs. For example, the Customers module lets you view accounts by territory, rating, or activity and export the data to a hard drive. You can import from and link business contacts to Outlook and even create your own FAQs section on the spot. We liked the way the Project Manager made it simple to create a new project. Additionally, Live throws in the Microsoft Office Small Business Accounting download, making it possible to share data with an accountant. Tech support is free via e-mail, and 24-7 telephone support is available to paid users of the Essentials and Premium editions. That compares favorably with Google Apps' free phone help for users of its $50 Premium edition.
We didn't run into any glitches while testing this service on Windows XP using Internet Explorer. Then again, we weren't able to make full use of the shared tasks in our brief tour. While Office Live was speedy overall, we experienced brief delays after clicking some links, a potential drawback for businesses. The business applications seem most helpful as a shared work space for a small firm with employees in multiple locations.