Microsoft’s Office Live Web service was designed for small businesses that needed an easy, low-cost solution for creating and hosting Web sites and business-branded e-mails. When it was first introduced in November 2006, there were three versions: Basics (free), Essentials (US$19.95 per month) and Premium ($39.95 per month). The latest, reconfigured version — now called Microsoft Office Live Small Business (MOLSB) — simplifies things by offering a single service with a number of for-pay add-ons.
The free Web-building, Web-hosting and e-mail service adds a selection of online business applications such as a contact manager and document repository, and it offers several for-pay add-on services to promote your site or help you sell products online. While many providers can offer an online service or two, a sharable spreadsheet, or a word-processing application, I haven’t found any that also include an integrated interface for a Web-design tool and basic (mostly free) online applications that enable your company’s shared data can be accessed anywhere.
My only complaint: MOLSB’s response time is sluggish throughout all the modules I tested when compared with other online services (especially Intuit’s QuickBase), even though I was using a broadband connection. I’ll chalk the below-average performance to the fact that I tested a prerelease version of the service, but performance is something that Microsoft will want to boost if the service is to be truly valuable. The one sure reason you’ll abandon a service, even one that’s as useful and low-cost as MOLSB, is if you spend more time impatiently tapping your fingers on your desk than productively tapping them on your keyboard.
MOLSB now offers its features for up to five users at no charge; up to 70 more can be added for a monthly fee of US$14.95 per month for 10 users total including the five free ones, US$34.95 for 25 total users, US$64.95 for 50 total users, and US$84.95 for 75 total users. The service is currently supported by ads on your Office Live desktop, but don’t worry — they don’t appear on the Web site you generate. You can turn off the ads by paying another US$19.95 annually.
According to Microsoft, support via e-mail is available around the clock with responses within four hours. Telephone support is free for the first 30 days, with a paid option available after that.
Create a Web site
MOLSB’s most attractive feature is its ability to help users quickly and easily create and update a Web site (hosting included). A user-friendly interface makes it easy to choose simple layouts, pick color schemes and add content easily. MOLSB updates the navigation menus automatically as you add or remove pages.
An image gallery offers a place to centrally store graphics files that can, with a couple of clicks, be placed on any page, and you can stock your document gallery with files (such as brochures or price lists) that can be displayed on your site. The image gallery is required if you want to put any images on your site — and you must install the Image Uploader applet first.
The site designer is perfect for small-business owners who lack the experience, technical skills or time needed to learn even basic Web coding and can’t afford (or aren’t willing to pay for) a professional Web designer. This is truly a simple, do-it-yourself approach to building a Web site that can yield professional-looking results. MOLSB users don’t need to know about HTML tags to position a product feature table on a page, they don’t have to worry about find a hosting service or register a domain name, and they need no knowledge of FTP to make changes.
This ease of use comes at a price, though. The editor’s simplicity will frustrate experienced users who aren’t afraid of HTML — you can’t view or modify the underlying HTML of the pages you create within the Web design tool. For example, if you enter a product description on a page, you can’t see the HTML for that text. You can’t add a tag to, say, add italics to a word or phrase; instead, you must use the editor to select the text and click the Italics tool-bar button.
There are, however, new ways to incorporate HTML. For instance, you can include code snippets from other sources via a pop-up text window, and you can activate the advanced features, including the ability to use third-party design tools instead of the built-in designer. I must issue a big caveat, however — choose this option from the start. Although you can upload your entire site from a third-party tool, MOLSB wipes out anything you created with its designer. Ouch.
Among other improvements in this release are support for Firefox 2.0 for both Mac and PC (at last), a link to Windows Live Spaces blogs to incorporate blog content into your site and an updated Slide Show module that lets you add captions for up to 50 rotating images to your site. Your Web page can also include content from a variety of included modules. For example, you can add a map with driving directions, a list of stock quotes and local weather (with optional four-day forecast).
Integration is also dramatically improved in this version. For instance, you can maintain an employee list in the contact manager and automatically update a staff list (with selected fields only) to your Web site, so customers can view the e-mail or phone numbers of your staff. Change a phone number of an employee in the contact manager, and the number is automatically updated on your Web site.
One feature I would still like to see is a simple Undo feature to encourage experimentation. Without it, undoing some actions can take more effort than it should, such as removing a table inserted in error is a hassle.
Included at no cost are 500MB of Web site storage (you can purchase an additional 5GB for US$14.95) plus unlimited bandwidth. If you already have a domain, you can point it to your MOLSB site at no charge.
Of course, what’s a Web site without a way for visitors to contact you? You can create and associate up to 100 e-mail addresses with your MOLSB account, each with 5GB of storage. (In testing, the accounts were assigned to the Officelivebeta.com domain.) If you sign up for your own domain, the 100 e-mail accounts will use the domain you’ve chosen. As the mail administrator, I found it easy to change passwords (to prevent departing employees from accessing their mail, for example) so I could still keep their messages or delete accounts outright.
As with all the services branded with Microsoft’s Live moniker, things can get confusing. For example, the distinction between e-mail addresses assigned to an MOLSB account and the MOLSB user assigned to your account can get a bit complicated. You can define up to five users — all of whom must have Microsoft Passport accounts, such as Hotmail or Live.com accounts — at no cost. These five users can log into your MOLSB account and use whatever features you’ve allowed, such as the Contact Manager.
Now let’s say you’ve assigned those five accounts and now you want to set up an e-mail address called email@example.com. You set up the e-mail address from within MOLSB, after which you can view messages to firstname.lastname@example.org through the Windows Live Mail service or MOLSB interface, whichever you prefer. If you access e-mail messages through MOLSB, you’ll actually be taken to the Windows Live Mail service anyway.
So far, so good. The problem is, once you log on to get mail to that account by using MOLSB, you’ll find menu options within the MOLSB interface for features such as Contact Manager that are only available to the five users defined for the account. Since “contactus” is only an e-mail account assigned to the MOLSB account — and not one of the five free users assigned to the account — it doesn’t actually have access to Contact Manager.
Thus, if you log on to get “contactus'” e-mail, you may think you can open Contact Manager, but if you click on that menu option, you’ll get an error message. I’d much prefer the service include only links to services a user or e-mail account is entitled to work with.
Web-building and e-mail administration aren’t all you can do with MOLSB, of course. Managing customer data is a key task of any small business, and that’s where Contact Manager comes in. It’s an easy-to-use, no-frills customer relationship management application that is suitable for tracking basic customer information.
Is it a full-fledged customer tracking system? By no means. But it’s a great deal better than nothing. I’ve worked with small businesses where each salesperson kept individual client lists, which was a nightmare for the business owner or sales manager. By having the information online and accessible to your entire team from just about anywhere, your salespeople can share the most current data at all times.
Contact Manager has lots of fields, but it lacks flexibility. I couldn’t add a new field, for example, to keep track of information specific to my business — there isn’t even a free-form comment text field.
On the plus side, if you have a sales team, you may be interested in the Opportunities feature: Enter an opportunity, then assign it to a company or an individual (either customers or members of your own staff, depending on how you use them). There is also a Products list which provides a central place to organize product information (descriptions, prices and markups, and a primitive inventory count).
You can export Contact Manager data to a spreadsheet, or edit entries in grid mode and make the contacts available offline via Outlook 2003 or 2007.
Your MOLSB account includes your choice of any or all of 20 free business applications. Two of these — Document Manager and Team Workspace — are installed by default.
Document Manager lets you share documents among members of your team (those you’ve added to your account). You can require approval of a document before it’s added to a site (it sits in a “pending” state until it’s approved), keep versions and require a document be checked out before it can be edited.
I found it easy to add individual files or groups of files to the library. Checking in and out files is just as easy, and the interface is simple enough that any users will understand that a current document is being updated by someone on your team.
You can define folders within the library. If you want to organize some documents or set different security permissions in another library, simply add an additional Document Manager application.
There are some limitations. I found a way to allow a user to be an administrator (manage the entire library), editor (update any document) or reader (read-only access) for the entire Document Manager application, but I couldn’t assign specific access rights at the document level. To get around this, I created a separate instance of Document Manager for each set of security permissions I wanted to set up — one library allowed all to edit any document, another allowed only me to edit the document and all others to read them. It’s not an ideal solution, but for many small businesses, it may be a satisfactory compromise.
Team Workspace, the other preinstalled business application, is perfect for posting announcements and calendar events, listing links to your own or external Web pages, and creating a document library. I created a list of events in the Team Workspace and published the list to the Web, and MOLSB automatically created a page containing the events and incorporated the new page into my site. I then opened the Web site editor, picked the fields from the list that I wanted to include (such as event title, start time, end time and description), and the page was created.
Furthermore, simply by checking a box, you can create an RSS feed and post a link to it on your page, with the information automatically formatted so anyone can quickly subscribe to the feed and add the events to an RSS feed reader, including the one built into Outlook 2007.
Besides multiple calendars and lists, you can include a variety of components in your workspace, from a wiki to a discussion group. The clean interface makes it easy to customize. A Getting Started panel at the top of the screen (which you can toggle on and off) and a Resource Center are available from any application. The former provides links to help information that explains the application’s basics, while the latter provides help for more advanced tasks.
As with Document Manager, you can install multiple Workspace instances to match different security requirements.
Beyond Document Manager and Team Workspace, you can choose from 18 other useful business applications (some of which are predefined collections of document templates), organized in six categories, such as “Schedule Meetings and Events” or “Collaborate with coworkers and clients.” These free applications range from a simple Project Manager to a Decision Meeting Workspace for tracking agenda items and task progress. A link to third-party applications is also provided.
MOLSB includes 50MB of business applications storage, and you can buy up to 5GB more for US$14.95 per month.
Promote your business — for a fee
Not everything is free, of course. There are a number of other applications that you can access, assuming you’re willing to pay for them. They include the following:
— Store Manager: This costs US$39.95 per month and is available only in the U.S. It provides e-commerce services for listing and selling products on your site (complete with shopping cart) and/or on eBay. You define the product’s name and attributes, attach an image, customize the information display, and define shipping options and tax terms.
Orders from your site and from eBay are consolidated into a single interface. The add-on allows you to accept credit card or PayPal payments. To accept credit cards, you must sign up for PayPal Express. You can also generate invoices and send purchase and shipping confirmation e-mail messages to your customers.
— E-Mail Marketing: This feature (in beta at press time) lets you send e-mail newsletters and promotional material to your customers. You define and control the recipient list, create the e-mail content, and send the e-mail messages. In addition, you can view reports on receipts and open rates. There is no mechanism for the customers to add themselves to your list, but Microsoft says they can unsubscribe from your mailing list.
Pricing for the service had not been set at press time; during the beta, the first 200 messages per month were free, with each additional message costing 5 cents, pricing which is out of line with the market — typical mass mailings cost 1-2 cents per message.
Microsoft says that e-mails will be recorded as “sent” in each contact’s activity record in the Contact Manager application.
— AdManager:. Priced on a pay-per-click basis, this is a keyword-based advertising tool that adds your link or display ad to Live.com on MSN, Ask.com, Excite.com and Lycos. Unfortunately, it doesn’t put your ads where you really them want to be: Google and/or Yahoo.
You can test out the value with a US$50 credit for MSN and a US$50 credit for Ask.com (U.S. customers only). AdManager helps you set up the text link, choose key words and determine the price and total budget you can afford.
MOLSB isn’t limited to Microsoft services. Developers and designers can build a site, even one including a workspace, then create a package that users can upload to their sites and then use.
The bottom line
While I’m sad to see that Microsoft no longer offers a “free custom domain for life” option, paying US$14.95 a year after the first year for basic Web design, document sharing and an online common team area for five users is still a steal, especially when you consider that it includes a year’s worth of hosting. The first year is free, and because a credit card is no longer needed to sign up, you need invest nothing but a few hours of your time to see how you like the service.
I found setup and customization of the business applications quick and easy. True, the Web designer isn’t for members of the Dreamweaver set — who will find it woefully underpowered — and an MOLSB Web site won’t be confused with one designed by a full-time, professional graphics designer and code guru.
But that’s not MOLSB’s target audience. The company is going for users who want to get a site up and running with a minimum of fuss and with virtually no technical skills and at no cost — especially small businesses on a shoestring budget that need to share data among employees and that don’t have time to spend learning several new products. For this demographic, Microsoft Office Live Small Business’ integrated, easy-to-navigate interface is ideal.