Microsoft Expands Online Service for Small Businesses

When Microsoft debuted its Office Live Small Business service more than two years ago, the company was in the nascent stages of delivering its Live offerings. Then simply called "Office Live," the service has since been renamed Office Live Small Business, both to open the door for other Office Live services (such as Office Live Workspaces) and to make the name a bit more self-explanatory. This past week, however, Microsoft issued its first major upgrade to Office Live Small Business and the result is a service that should appeal to those businesses without dedicated technical staff.

The most important change goes right to the heart of the biggest concern facing small businesses today: their pocketbook. Whereas the original version of Office Live Small Business offered three levels of service with varying features and price points, Microsoft has now split out various premium services, allowing all customers to optionally subscribe to them on an al a carte basis. The result should be a far more affordable service for most businesses

Microsoft also opened up Office Live Small Business to users of the Firefox Web browser, where the previous versions supported only Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE). This may seem like a small change, given Firefox's approximate 10 percent market share in the United States. But this move opens up the service to a new range of small businesses, including those who use Macs. And it makes the service much more appealing outside of the United States, where Firefox's market share is often quite a bit higher. That sort of pragmatism is something Microsoft rarely gets credit for, but it permeates Office Live Small Business.

The basic Office Live Small Business account is absolutely free. At this level, you receive up to 100 email addresses and a custom Web site, both tied to a custom domain name, 500MB of online storage space, a surprisingly good Web-based WYSIWYG Web site editor, integration with Microsoft Outlook, and collaboration facilities via Office Live Workspace. Not too shabby for a free product, which is ad supported but not annoyingly so.

The extra-cost a la carte offerings range from extremely useful to surprisingly limited. On the useful end, Microsoft offers a full-featured shopping cart Web application that lets you sell merchandise from your own Web site or on eBay. This tool, called Store Manager, lets you accept credit card payments, access real time sales reports, and is generally pretty affordable: $39.95 a month plus a 1 percent monthly transaction fee. There's also a useful email marketing tool, currently still in beta, that lets you target customers through email mailing lists in a variety of ways.

Less useful is the search marketing tool, which helps you target potential customers online via search ads. Unfortunately, however, Office Live Small Business currently only supports second-tier search engines like MSN/Live Search and The two biggest and most lucrative search engines, Google and Yahoo!, are not supported. I'm told the company is looking into adding support for these search engines, however.

I'm still investigating the various nooks and crannies of this significantly improved service, and I'll have a longer write-up soon on the SuperSite for Windows. Stay tuned.

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