Microsoft To Offer Online Services To Businesses Of All Sizes

Monday Microsoft also unveiled Web-hosted versions of its Exchange Server 2007 and Office SharePoint Server 2007 collaboration applications in a move that's sure to step up the competition with software-as-a-service products offered by Internet rivals Google and Yahoo.

Last year Microsoft said it would offer the Microsoft Online Services only to customers with 5,000 or more seats and rely on its channel partners to sell the hosted applications to smaller businesses. The online services include Web-hosted versions of Exchange, SharePoint and Office Communications, as well as Office Live Meeting.

Monday Microsoft disclosed a shift in that approach, saying that it now plans to offer Microsoft Online Services to businesses of all sizes. Microsoft said it has opened a limited beta trial of the Web-hosted versions of Exchange Online and SharePoint Online at The per-user subscription services, scheduled to be generally available to companies of all sizes sometime in the second half of this year, allow businesses to access e-mail, calendaring, contacts, shared workspaces, and Web conferencing and videoconferencing over the Internet.

"We're going to embrace customers of all sizes," said Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, speaking at the annual Microsoft Office SharePoint Conference in Seattle. "Now we're going to bring in customers with [fewer than] 5,000 seats. And we expect that by the end of this year, if this all goes well, we'll have general availability of a subscription-type service for both SharePoint and Exchange."

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Mike Ritsema, president of i3 Business Solutions LLC, a Grand Rapids, Mich., solution provider and Microsoft Gold partner, called Microsoft's move part of "the Googlization of technology." While he understands that Microsoft has to take such steps to compete, he worried that opening Microsoft Online Services to businesses of all sizes could result in channel conflict. But he believes Microsoft will leave companies with fewer than 1,000 employees to channel partners, given that it's a more cost-effective way to serve such customers. "I would just hope that Microsoft would help its partners as they march down that [technology] path," he said.

Gates, speaking with a scratchy voice, said sales of the popular SharePoint product would surpass $1 billion this year and reach the milestone of 100 million licenses. Ritsema said SharePoint is a rapidly growing part of i3 Business Solutions' sales. "This is driving services for us and it's very cool," he said.

Microsoft also debuted the Silverlight Blueprint for SharePoint, a toolkit for building rich Internet applications for corporate intranets. And the company announced the general availability of Microsoft Search Server 2008 Express, a free downloadable search application the vendor announced in November.

Gates reminded attendees at the SharePoint conference that he will transition to working full-time at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation this year and further reduce the amount of time he spends at Microsoft. That led to a humorous film depicting Gates considering new careers in acting, music and politics and exploring ways to occupy his free time.