Review: Office Live A Big Deal For Small Businesses

The online service, which serves up a menu of Web tools and productivity applications, aims to attract small businesses -- notably those with 10 or fewer employees -- with a free version called Office Live Basic., which includes a domain name, a Web site with a built-in design tool, 25 e-mail accounts and an instant-messaging account.

Microsoft also offers Office Live Essentials and Office Live Collaboration for growing businesses.

Since the Office Live beta became available last February, the site has gained more than 160,000 beta users, according to Microsoft. The Redmond, Wash., software giant said Tuesday it plans to roll out Office Live in the United States on Nov. 15.

The latest changes in Office Live considerably improve its ease of use and overall functionality for novice users. Office Live can help small businesses transition from static Web sites to interactive Web sites, though without providing transactional capabilities. Microsoft plans to add online shopping transactions in a future release, so customers currently can only advertise services and products and interact with customers.

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The new Office Live Site Designer tool now has many more templates and stock photography to speed up site development. Office Live allows the import of custom HTML from other third-party design tools as well. Developers can even add simple Ajax functionality to pages. With custom coding, transactions can be linked indirectly to items displayed on a page. Developers can easily associate items with PayPal links, for example.

Since Office Live is built atop SharePoint Services 3.0, developers also can build business applications using the SharePoint API. Most of the API -- with open ports and internal libraries -- is available, with the exception of FrontPage Server Extensions and user collection operations. Unfortunately, Microsoft shut off some key features in SharePoint services that can break Office Live or leave it exposed to hackers.

Integration with Office Live is limited to Microsoft Office products, but developers can extend access by using SOAP and Web Parts. Office Live also comes with business services to help small businesses run marketing campaigns and projects and to help attract new customers.

One of these offerings is a free AdManager Beta service. AdManager simplifies the process of bidding on keywords online. Clearly, the MSN search engine plays a big role, but Microsoft also aims to help customers that need exposure on local search engines as well as on the large search engines. Through AdManager, businesses can aggregate and manage keywords from one place.

Other marketing services, such as the reporting tool, can help businesses take action on search statistics. Office Live provides Business Contact Manager to help mine leads, track business opportunities and sales tasks, maintain customer properties and generate marketing reports. Office Live also provides reports to track customer behavior.

Mobile staff can use Contact Manager to receive e-mail leads and track customer prospects from anywhere. To maintain secure e-mail inside Office Live sites, Microsoft uses a patented SmartScreen technology to detect spam, remove viruses and protect personal data. SmartScreen uses Sender ID technology to verify e-mail senders.



Microsoft Office Live 2007




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Note: "Recommended" status is earned with a score of 8 stars out of 10.

Microsoft is touting that its goal for Office Live is to have everything in one place for businesses of all size. To that end, it has made available some enterprise business applications for Live Essentials and Live Collaboration customers. One of those key collaboration business services is Workspaces, which allows users to organize meetings, maintain a central knowledge base and share files with customers.

Although Workspaces can't yet compete with high-end collaboration suites -- the service lacks whiteboards, live communication and mult-iuse sharing capabilities, for example -- the current limits don't have to hinder creativity. Microsoft is still providing enough programming freedom for VARs to build unique solutions.