Don’t be confused by the name – Office Live isn’t the familiar office suite online. Instead, it’s a collection of services, including a hosted website, design tools and email, all delivered through an easy-to-use web interface. It’s designed for small businesses or groups to help them market their goods or services.
Despite no announcement of availability in Australia yet, you can still access it through the US or UK sites. The entry-level service, Office Live Basics, is free and gives you a public website and 25 web email accounts with up to 2GB of storage each. The website can be up to 500MB in size, and you can use up to 10GB of data transfer in a month. You also get a free domain name.
The website designer is simple but elegant. There are sets of stock layouts and colour schemes, so you can simply pick from these and then add your content. When you create a new page, you pick from a list of templates for common page types such as FAQ, Press Release or Company Calendar. Each template comes with sample text, which tells you how to use them. You can create as few or as many pages as you need, putting in text and graphics as you want them, and then link all your pages using the navigation tool. You can use tables, fonts and colours, and achieve professional-looking results in minutes.
It’s far easier to use than, say, FrontPage and looks remarkably like an Office 2007 app, despite the fact that it’s hosted within a web browser. There are quite a few reports available that tell you how many people have visited your website, how they got there and which pages they viewed while they were there. You also get a chance to set the metatags for your pages, so that search engines have more to go on than just the visible content. In the US, the paid-for services cost US$20 or US$40 a month, but they’re free from the UK during beta testing.
The next service up, Office Live Essentials, raises the number of email accounts from 25 to 50, your website can be up to 1GB in size and you can transfer up to 15GB a month. You get the ability to upload an existing website and use another web page design app instead of the built-in simple designer, but the main advance is the web-hosted Contact Manager application with another 500MB of storage and up to ten users. You also get access to the Outlook Connector to bring your Office Live email through to Outlook (2000 and above).
The Business Contact Manager app lets you store details of Accounts (companies you do business with), Contacts (people at those companies), Opportunities (to sell something to those people) and Products (things you sell). It’s a simplistic and regimented way of doing business, but it will work for many people. There’s a dashboard that presents an overview of newly added information and allows you to quickly add new contacts or accounts. When you create an opportunity, you can say which products the customer is interested in, details of the source of the lead, payment terms and comments, as well as track phone calls and notes. There’s little scope for customising the way the app works, though – you can’t add fields, change form layouts or change the possible values in the drop-down lists. About the only thing you can do is add or rearrange the web parts on the dashboard.
The top service, Office Live Premium, increases the number of users to 20, raises the storage for the website to 2GB, business data to 1GB, the data transfer limit up to 20GB, and you get more web-hosted apps for managing projects, employees and other business data.
Office Live is based on SharePoint version 3 technology and, with the Premium product, it’s much like having your own SharePoint server. You can create any number of workspaces or pages for different teams or departments. You can upload documents or pictures, manage users, set permissions and so on – the whole suite of apps is large enough that it could take some time before the users get the most out of them.
At the other end of the scale, Office Live Basics is a great service, and we can see it being useful to many small businesses, as well as for organisations such as voluntary groups. It’s easy to get a good-looking website up and running in a few hours, and once the address has been published it will be less than a day before the world can theoretically see what you have to offer and how to get in touch with you. As it’s funded by ads on just the management console (and even these are unobtrusive), potential clients aren’t distracted by Office Live branding.
Office Live Essentials faces the same problems as Outlook Business Contact Manager – it’s limited, based on US practice, and “one size fits all”. Office Live Premium is a good proposition for small companies that want to facilitate good collaboration between workers but don’t feel confident enough to run their own SharePoint server. As long as the prices stay at this level, it will be good value when it appears on these shores.