Does Office Live Equal Death For The SMB VAR?


Solution providers hosting Web sites for their small- business customers are going to have to find a new line of work if Microsoft has its way with Office Live.

Microsoft&'s latest shot into the managed services market proves to be an eclectic mix of features that many small businesses will find attractive.

Microsoft will be delivering the Office Live product line as three distinct products: Office Live Basic, Office Live Collaboration and Office Live Essentials. Office Live Basic, which is completely free, offers a free domain name, easy-to-use design tools, five e-mail accounts and Web site traffic reports. Solution providers offering those services for a fee will experience the most pain from the basic package. The basic package also will put a dent in the sales of those VARs reselling hosting packages from companies such as 1&1 Internet and GoDaddy.

CRN Test Center engineers went through the motions to create a Web site with Office Live. Overall, Test Center engineers found Office Live Basic very easy to use and were able to slap together a Web site, a shared collaboration space and some e-mail addresses in a couple of minutes. The interface makes accomplishing provided tasks simple.

There are some caveats, though. The included Web site designer, which only runs through Internet Explorer 5.5, is very limited, to say the least. Users will find no avenues available for building e-commerce applications or even creating advanced content. In other words, simplicity sacrifices capability.

The typical small business looking for a Web-based calling card, or whose Web page will remain rather static, will find the tools more than adequate for building a simple Web site. Other small businesses, which live in a world of change, will find that Office Live Basic falls far short of their needs.

Examples of those businesses include real estate brokers, landscapers, advertising and marketing firms, all of which frequently update their sites with photo galleries and time-sensitive information for a broad spectrum of potential customers.

Businesses needing an advanced Web presence can turn to the Office Live Essentials product, which offers Microsoft FrontPage support. Typically those businesses will need a Web site designer to leverage all that FrontPage has to offer. That could translate into another opportunity for solution providers.

Small business owners will appreciate how easy the contact manager and project manager applications are to use. But, to truly leverage the product, a reliable, fast broadband connection will be needed, along with a local copy of Microsoft Office. Microsoft Office can synchronize Outlook with Office Live, helping to centralize scheduling and contact information.

From a technical standpoint, the Office Live suite of offerings is well put together and is clearly aimed at the neophyte business user.

There is a silver lining for the channel, however. Solution providers can offer setup and training services for Office Live Basic and use the fact that the hosting is free as a foot in the door.

Office Live Collaboration adds basic CRM and shared workspace capabilities to the mix, and also is free, but only during the beta testing phase. The online workspace portion of the product brings a sharable Web presence to businesses looking to share information with their customers or employees in the field.

Office Live Essentials brings more functionality to users by adding FrontPage support for advanced Web sites, 50 e-mail accounts and increased online storage. Pricing has not been set for Collaboration or Essentials, but both of those services will remain free during the beta period.

The Office Live Basic package will remain free after the beta testing period and will be funded by advertising targeted at the small-business user.

Microsoft&'s Windows Live and Office Live campaigns only brings confusion to the channel at the moment, and could theoretically cut VARs out of the SMB software market. Microsoft has yet to determine if custom application delivery will be feasible for partners and how partnerships with VARs will be built.

That said, for success with the product, the typical small-business owner will need to have some technical savvy. Perhaps that is where the opportunity comes in for the solution provider -- tout the free Web hosting and use it as a launching point to engage potential customers for Web design and analysis services. Microsoft is shooting for the beta process to end by the fourth quarter of this year.