Beta Man

Microsoft Windows Office Live

Not an Office clone, but a way to move the office online.

Windows Office Live. You've heard about it as part of the Windows Live online set of initiatives. It sounds like a managed services version of the Office productivity suite, but it's not. And it's not a response to the Web-based Google Docs, either. Instead, it's a set of services to help small businesses and other organizations move online and have a working presence there.

Managed services are a great way to accomplish those goals for a small business. Administrative tasks tend to be minimal and well within the reach of the average business owner who might not have the technical skills or time to perform certain activities that can help grow the business.

Like many of the Windows Live products featured on, Office Live is considered to be in beta. In my time, a beta was something a select group of users tried out in test environments -- not for actual use -- in order to find bugs and collect feedback for the development team.

Yet Microsoft is actually charging a fee for some Windows Office Live users. The service comes in three versions: Office Live Basics, Office Live Essentials and Office Live Premium. It also offers Office adManager beta, a separate but free service that provides a way to purchase and manage keywords and manage an online advertising budget. Office Live Basics is a free service, while Essentials and Premium are by subscription. Charging for a beta seems counterintuitive, but the definition of beta has become quite fungible ever since Google turned the concept of beta software on its head by keeping its software in beta for long periods of time and distributing it widely.

Sign Up and Get Started
You can try out Office Live before buying on As mentioned before, Basics is free, and provides a fundamental set of features for someone who'd like to get online but doesn't necessarily know where to start, or only requires a minimal set of features. I signed up for this service under the name of my personal LLC in order to give it a test-drive. I also did a free trial of the Premium service.

Figure 1
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Figure 1. Microsoft Office Live provides a set of features for building your own Web site, using your chosen domain name.

The Basics version is comprehensive for any new business just starting out. It gives you Web site hosting along with 500MB of Web storage, the selection of a domain name, templates and tools for building simple Web sites, and the ability to buy advertising keywords. Even if you aren't computer-savvy, your business can be set up on the Web quickly and painlessly using the templates provided. It also gives you access to Office Live Mail and up to 25 e-mail addresses for your chosen domain, as well as an online accounting package. Overall, it took me a couple of hours to select a domain, assemble a basic Web site and set up my e-mail accounts (three in all).

The Office Live Essentials service includes everything in the Basics version, plus 1GB of Web site storage, Office Live Business Contact Manager, Online Workspaces and up to 50MB of disk space for storing and sharing documents between workers. It also gives you up to 50 e-mail addresses for your chosen domain. The fee for Office Live Essentials is $19.99 a month, about what you'd pay to have a simple Web site hosted. I have a friend who operates an advertising business with about half a dozen employees scattered up and down the East Coast, and ran this offering by her. Her comparable cost for Web access, Web site hosting, e-mail and an online shared contact database was over $200 a month, so there's a good amount of value for a small business, especially a dispersed one.

Figure 2
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Figure 2. Office Live provides a Web page for administration of your account, including adding e-mail addresses, viewing the status of your services, or changing your Web site.

Office Live Premium, at $39.99 a month, includes everything in the Essentials version, plus 2GB of Web site storage space as well as online applications for managing customers, employees, projects and business data. These tools may help if you expect to run a good deal of your business online. Otherwise, the primary advantage of the Premium version is that it offers more storage space, both for e-mail and online collaboration. If your documents are large and you do a lot of back-and-forth, it probably pays to up your subscription to this level.

Both paid services also have a toll-free line for technical support, which is likely the real advantage of those services. All versions include Office Accounting Express, which -- in a switch from the "Live" or online nature of the rest of the offerings -- is a free download. You can do your bookkeeping entirely in a rich client environment on the desktop. While you lose the advantage of online data access and data backup, you may feel more comfortable keeping your accounting information away from the Web.

Office Live makes building a Web site simple, but with the Basics version your Web site options are limited. You can use existing templates for a home page, about us page, contacts page and products/services page. These templates include fields for several different types of text or graphic information, but don't provide a lot of flexibility for downloads, blogs, RSS feeds or other types of visitor interaction. If you need more than a simple Web site, you're going to have to use one of the subscription solutions.

Office Live vs. Doing It Yourself
I recently renewed another domain name for five years at a cost of around $140. I host a Web site and e-mail at that domain for about $15 a month. It's not a lot of money, but it's a lot more than free. Microsoft is packing at least that much value into the Office Live offering. For a small business owner who has not yet made the leap, or for a business with several geographically separated employees, this makes a lot of sense. And for most of them, I'd recommend the subscription-based Essentials service.

My primary objection to Windows Office Live is the name. The implication of the name is that it replicates some or all of the functions of Office online, which isn't the case at all. Microsoft has certainly been attempting to expand the scope of the Office brand beyond its desktop productivity packages, but causing confusion with a dissimilar Web offering is the wrong way to do it.

That said, I have to applaud Microsoft for offering interesting and useful managed services like this, especially for small businesses for whom anything more than a basic Web site might be out of reach. Of course, Microsoft is testing a new and potentially highly profitable market, and is trying to generate ongoing subscription revenue, so its motives are no doubt mixed. Yet it has the potential to be a valuable tool to help small businesses expand their markets and look more technology-savvy.

But I still don't understand how it can be called a beta.

About the Author

Peter Varhol is the executive editor, reviews of Redmond magazine and has more than 20 years of experience as a software developer, software product manager and technology writer. He has graduate degrees in computer science and mathematics, and has taught both subjects at the university level.


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