Review: Microsoft Office Live Basics Vs. Google Apps For Your Domain

Small businesses and organizations have long been caught in a kind of virtual Slough of Despond when it comes to managing their e-mail systems, designing and maintaining their Web sites, and scheduling their business lives with a group calendar. Because they can't afford their own IT staff and network infrastructure, they either do without, or else pay too much money for too few services for outsourcing or hosting.

If you believe Google and Microsoft, small business salvation is at hand. Both have recently launched free -- yes, that's right, free -- services for small businesses. Google offers Google Apps For Your Domain, while Microsoft has its Microsoft Office Live Basics. Both services are currently in beta, and both in essence function as loss leaders, because both Google and Microsoft will offer fuller featured for-pay versions of the services. (Microsoft offers Office Live Collaboration for $29.95 per month and Office Live Essentials for $29.95 per month, while Google has not yet announced the name and pricing of its for-pay service.)

Which one is best for your organization? I put them through their paces side by side. Overall, as you'll see, Google's service beats Microsoft's because of its superior e-mail, and because it offers a calendar, something that Microsoft does not. But if your primary focus is on Web site building, you'll instead want to use Microsoft's service.

Read on for the nitty-gritty details.

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Initial Setup
For small businesses that are setting up e-mail and managing a Web site through either Google Apps for Your Domain or Office Live Basic, one of the most daunting tasks will be the initial setup and configuration. After all, the whole point of these free tools is that they're for organizations without IT staffs -- and for normal folks, handling the requisite domain registration or transfer, DNS server setup, etc. can be a difficult task.

Which is better at the job? That depends on your needs. If you already own a domain, then Google wins hands down, offering simple-to-follow advice and directions. But if you're setting up a new domain, then Office Live Basics is your best bet, because it offers domains for free -- and Google doesn't include tools for domain registration.

Google Initial Setup
Transferring your mail and Web server information from your existing service to Google is not an easy task, but Google does an admirable job of helping you with the transfer.

For your e-mail to work with Google, you need to make changes to your existing Mail Exchange (MX) records, which control how incoming e-mail is routed for your domain. You need to make those changes with the registrar who has your DNS records (for example, Network Solutions or GoDaddy.) Similarly, to be able to create and host Web pages using Google, you need to make changes to your CNAME record with your registrar.

Don't expect any help from your registrar; they typically takes your money when you register a domain, and then leave you on your own. But the Google setup pages for transferring MX and CNAME records are a model of simplicity. They detail, in simple-to-follow steps, exactly how to make the changes. Besides the general instructions, you can find specific instructions for seven of the largest registrars, including GoDaddy, Network Solutions, Yahoo and others.

Google offers customized hands-on info to help you set up e-mail and Web hosting.
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Setup literally takes minutes; what could have been a frustrating task is made exceedingly simple. There's only one drawback: You can't sign up through Google for a new domain. If you want to get a new domain, you'll have to first register it with a registrar, then walk through the Google setup steps.

Windows Live Setup
If you don't yet have a domain, Office Live presents an exceptionally simple way to register one and make it live, all in one step. Even better -- you don't have to pay for it. Unlike when you register with a conventional registrar, with Office Live it's free. (If you cancel your Office Live account, you get to keep your domain, which is registered through Melbourne IT . But you'll then have to pay the normal annual registration fee for the domain name.)

Getting a domain is about as simple as can be. Use Office Live to search for a domain name not yet taken. When you find one, sign in with a Windows Live account (free; formerly called a Windows Passport account.) Then fill in basic information, such as your name, address, and so on, and you're done. In less than five minutes, you'll have a free domain. The only odd part of the process is that you'll have to put in information about your credit card number, even though it won't be charged.

Office Live offers an exceptionally simple way to register a domain and make it live, all in one step.
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What if you want to use an existing domain? Here's where things get a little sticky. You'll have to transfer the entire domain to Office Live's registrar. (At Google, you keep your domain with your existing registrar; you merely change your existing records.)

In theory, transferring a domain should be easy to do. On the page where you search for an available domain, there's a "Transfer current domain name" button that claims to automate the process. But registrars don't like losing business. So when you follow the wizard the button launches, the great odds are that you'll find out that your record has been "locked" by your registrar. You'll have to unlock it yourself; Windows Live offers no help in doing that. I have two words for you " good luck.

Once it's unlocked, though, transferring your domain is simple; just follow the steps and you can do it quickly and easily.Home Page Creation
Both services offer automated Web page creation tools -- you don't need to know a single piece of HTML code to quickly build Web pages and entire sites. But Microsoft's Web site-building tools are far superior to Google's. If a substantial Web presence is important to you, but you don't want to pay a designer or coder, then Microsoft's service is the winner.

That's not to say there's much wrong with Google's Web site creation tool. It's simple to use and basic -- point-and-click tools let you create a page in minutes. It's much like every other Web-based page-creation tool you've ever seen, with buttons for formatting text, creating links, including images, and so on. There are several different layouts and looks from which you can choose. If you prefer to use HTML instead of the tools, click Edit HTML, and you'll be able to edit the raw HTML. Publishing the site is simple; click the Publish button.

The Google web page creation tool is simple, easy to use -- and very basic.
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Don't expect anything sophisticated from the tool; you can't even use it to make a graphic link. For that, you'll have to edit the HTML yourself. In addition, the tool is pointed at creating a single page, rather than an entire site; there's no way to apply site-wide navigation or a common look and feel, and there are no site-wide management tools. All in all, it's bare-bones basic and not particularly sophisticated.

Office Live offers far more sophisticated page creation tools -- in fact, they're just about the most sophisticated set of Web-based page creation and management tools you'll find anywhere.

You start off by creating a customized template for your site, including navigation, headers and footers, fonts, and a theme (complete with graphics) based on your business's industry. The designs themselves are sophisticated, and less cartoony and simplistic than those offered by Google. There's a far greater selection as well.

The tool doesn't take a one-page approach to building a site. It starts off with four linked, pre-created pages, including the home page, an About Us page, a Contact Us page, and a Site Map page. New pages, which carry site-wide navigation and design, can be easily created, and it's also easy to apply an entirely new design and theme to the entire site with a few clicks.

The Web creation tools offered by Office Live Basics are about the best you'll find in any Web-based site service. Click image to enlarge.

The site administration tools are excellent, and include an image gallery, which shows all the graphics you've uploaded and that are ready to be used. There's even a site reporting tool, that visually displays traffic trends, as well as a way to revert your site to a previous version, if for some reason the current one gets corrupted.

There a lot more as well -- far more than can fit into this review -- but the bottom line is that this is a surprisingly powerful and sophisticated page creation tool. It amazes me that it's free.

No surprise here; when it comes to e-mail, Google beats Office Live hands-down. That's because Google uses Gmail for its e-mail, while Office Live uses Windows Live Mail. As we've detailed in Is Google Still the Ajax King?, Gmail is far superior to Windows Live Mail, offering threaded conversations and excellent ways to organize e-mail, including powerful rules and filters. And it allows you to either use it as Web-based mail or POP-based mail, or a combination of the two.

Getting to your Office Live Mail account is confusing, and there's no obvious way to get from Mail to managing your site.
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By way of contrast, Live Mail is not nearly as well-organized, buries some of its more useful features, and doesn't offer POP3 access. In addition, Office Live gives you only five accounts for your organization, while Google offers 25.

The Google Calendar is straightforward and intuitive (for a full review, see Google Calendar Beta: A Hot Date). To create an event, merely click on the date and time, fill out a simple form, and you're done.

If it's an event to which you want to invite others, you just have to include their e-mail addresses, and the invitation will be automatically sent out in iCalendar (.ics) format. When someone accepts the invitation, their acceptance is automatically placed in the calendar. In addition, if they don't use Google Calendar, and instead use another calendaring program or Web site that is compatible with the iCalendar format, the meeting will show up in their calendar when they open the .ics file.

Creating a group event in the Google Calendar is easy: fill out this page, and the notification gets sent to everyone on the list.
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Outlook, Notes, Apple's iCal, and other calendars and calendar sites are compatible with the iCalendar format, to varying degrees. So in Outlook, for example, there is no active updating of the event; rather, the new file needs to be opened each time.

Google's iCalendar support is particularly useful when scheduling meetings with people outside your organization. You could create a meeting request, have it sent out in the .ics format to people inside your organization as well as outside. Those in your organization would have the meeting show up in the Google calendar. Those outside the organization would have it show up in their iCalendar-compatible calendars. If the recipient's calendar isn't compatible with iCalendar, they will see the meeting request as a plain email invitation.

Google's simple and automated group scheduling is well-suited for small organizations; it offers pretty much all they need, and will save the expense of buying network-based calendar software.

There is one drawback to the Google Calendar, though; unaccountably, it doesn't work with Internet Explorer 7. The browser is still in beta, so it may be that upon launch, the problem will be solved. But as of this writing, you'll have to use or Firefox or an earlier version of IE.

Office Live doesn't offer a calendar; if you're looking for that, you'll have to buy one of Microsoft's for-pay versions of its service.

Overall Integration
Both services are designed for organizations that don't have IT staffs for maintaining mail and Web servers. So integrated tools for managing mail, Web access, and the overall account are particularly important.

Here's where Windows Office Live has very serious shortcomings. In fact, it appears that Windows Live is just a collection of unrelated services, rather than an integrated whole. Managing your site and account is maddening and confusing; expect to bumble around for quite a long time before you accidentally stumble on the proper way to do things -- if you manage to stumble on it at all.

Google offers a simple overall management page.
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You need to have a Windows Live ID (formerly Microsoft Passport) in order to set up an account, which means you need a pre-existing Hotmail or Windows Live Mail account. But unaccountably, after you create your new Office Live account, when you click Inbox, you won't be able to access your new Office Live e-mail. Instead, you'll be sent to your original Hotmail or Windows Live mail account.

That's bad enough, but when you go to that old mail account, all of your site management tools vanish as well, because clicking Inbox sends you away from your new Office Live account.

So how to get to use your new Office Live e-mail account? Log out of the account you used to create that account, then log in again with your Office Live username and password. Ahh! Someone help me, please!

That's confusing enough. What if you now want to manage your Office Live account, by adding new email users, for example? You can't, because the Office Live account you're using wasn't the one you used to set up Office Live --- your original e-mail account was. So log out, log in again with the original account, and add a new users. Want to check your Office Live e-mail now? You guessed right -- you'll have to log out of your Hotmail account, and log back in with your Windows Live account.

I could go on, but you get the point. Just trying to do the most basic tasks will make your head spin.

Google, on the other hand, uses classic, simple, Google no-frills navigation. When you're checking your mail, for example, click "Manage this domain," and you'll be sent to an overall management page with links for managing and creating user accounts, managing and editing your Web site, changing domain settings, and so on.

The Bottom Line
Which of the sites is better? Overall, Google Apps for Your Domain is a clear winner. It offers superior e-mail, better site management, and has a group calendar, an important component to running a small business and something that Office Live lacks.

If, however, you're mainly looking for a free service that has excellent Web site creation tools, you'll want Office Live.

The truth is, though, you can't beat free, so whichever site you choose, you'll end up being a winner.