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February 22, 2006

Review: Microsoft Office Live

Microsoft's new online service for small businesses helps Web novices build sites and share data with very little trouble.

Courtesy of Small Business Pipeline

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On February 15, 2006, Microsoft unveiled its Office Live online service for small businesses (defined as those with up to 10 employees). Don’t be confused by the name — Office Live has little to do with the Microsoft Office suite. It's directed to the small business wishing to build a site and/or share data with co-workers, customers, and partners.

Office Live Basics is all about developing a Web presence without HTML experience.

The service comes in three flavors. Office Live Basics is the best bargain of the bunch. It includes Web building, e-mail, and hosting (all for free, including domain registration). Collaboration includes the ability to build intranets (to share information with co-workers) and extranets (to share information with the outside world, such as customers, vendors, or partners), but it includes no Web-site tools. The Essentials version combines Basics and Collaboration.

As of this writing, the betas of all three are available for free; once they are out of beta, both Collaboration and Essentials will begin at $29.95/month. According to Microsoft's FAQ, the company is making its money by selling advertising on some of the member pages — however, it says, the ads will not appear on users' sites.

Getting Down to Basics
Office Live Basics is all about developing a Web presence without HTML experience. You can build a multi-page Web site by choosing a domain name (which Microsoft registers for you), and picking a design (arranged by business types, such as “real estate” and “pet supplies”). Select a graphic theme and color scheme, and the program builds a sample site, pre-populated with text and graphics that you then can replace.

There are 13 pre-defined page templates, including, for example, About Us, Company Calendar, FAQ, Press Releases, and Site Map. Each template has some skeleton text filled in that you can replace, and components that are suitable for that type of page. However, you can build any kind of text-and-image page you want.

An Office Live Web page is divided into three sections, called zones, and you can select from a variety of pre-defined zone arrangements. You fill each zone with one or more Web Parts -- think of these as components that make up a Web page, such as text blocks, images, tables, or even a live weather report for a city of your choice.

When you create a Web page, you can add both text and images within each Zone. (A Zone is a user-definable area on the page.) Click image to enlarge.

Text editing is primitive. Five fonts and seven text sizes are available, and you can apply bold, italic, and underscore, use bullets and numbered lists, and insert links, horizontal lines, tables, or graphics -- but little else. The interface is designed for entering (or pasting) simple text or placing graphics rather than doing any HTML coding, and it’s enough to get those chores done. In fact, by keeping HTML completely inaccessible, it protects less talented or experienced site owners from lousing up their page.

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