Microsoft Office Live beta goes live

Redmond (WA) - In an unorthodox effort to generate some revenue from a project whose construction remains in progress, Microsoft today is launching the first stage of its beta version of its Office Live hosting services. New customers will be able to take advantage of free Web hosting and five e-mail addresses, both during and after the completion of the beta cycle; while customers interested in testing collaboration and customer management tools can sign up for two classes of service, for which Microsoft will charge $29.95 per month once the cycle has concluded.

Up to this point, Microsoft's choice of branding has made it appear to some that the company is deploying an ASP-like, server-based implementation of its Microsoft Office suite. But today's beta rollout makes clear this is not the case. Instead, Office Live is being offered as a Web hosting service for small business, implementing Microsoft's own Web page design and Web service implementation tools, which are themselves hosted through the company.

In today's release statement, Jeff Raikes, president of the company's Business Division, describes Office Live as a means for businesses to create online storefronts using a common set of server-based tools. "We are making online services available for small businesses to create an enterprise-like IT infrastructure for them without the management requirements," Raikes said. "Our goal is to make it easy and affordable for small businesses to have a more customizable Internet-based solution."

The low amount of Web site-based storage Office Live offers for two of its service tiers, Basics (30 Mb) and Essentials (50 Mb), may be deceiving, until one realizes that the hosting tools provided by Microsoft won't consume any of this space for themselves. Generally, leased Web hosting space from ISPs and other services, can be quickly consumed by the software the site needs to host its pages. So what Raikes means by "customizable" is apparently the capability for new customers to adapt the functions that Microsoft is still in the midst of creating, to suit the needs of small businesses requiring a quickly deployable electronic storefront.

Microsoft will be charging customers $29.95 per month for the use of its collaboration tools, and $29.95 per month for upgrading Office Live services from the Basics to the Essentials level. What keeps those prices relatively low, at least for now, is the deployment of advertising from Microsoft's ad servers. This fact is revealed parenthetically in today's statement, with a single reference to Basics as including "free services (advertising-supported)." Conceivably, Office Live could serve as a sort of testing facility for the deployment of another MSN project, adCenter, which unveiled its own experimental service, called Incubation Lab, last month.

Just as probable, Office Live could be incrementally expanded as the service evolves, to include the kind of application server-like features that its name originally implied. Today's statement from Microsoft clearly leaves this possibility open.