Office Live Small Business goes a la carte

The new version of Microsoft's small business Web services bundle offers new and mostly free features.

Microsoft's Office Live Web service was designed for small businesses that needed an easy, low-cost solution for creating and hosting Web sites and business-branded e-mails. When it was first introduced in November 2006, there were three versions: Basics (free), Essentials (US$19.95 per month) and Premium (US$39.95 per month). The latest, reconfigured version -- now called Microsoft Office Live Small Business (MOLSB) -- simplifies things by offering a single service with a number of for-pay add-ons.

The free Web-building, Web-hosting and e-mail service adds a selection of online business applications such as a contact manager and document repository, and it offers several for-pay add-on services to promote your site or help you sell products online. While many providers can offer an online service or two, a sharable spreadsheet, or a word-processing application, I haven't found any that also include an integrated interface for a Web-design tool and basic (mostly free) online applications that enable your company's shared data can be accessed anywhere.

My only complaint: MOLSB's response time is sluggish throughout all the modules I tested when compared with other online services (especially Intuit's QuickBase), even though I was using a broadband connection. I'll chalk the below-average performance to the fact that I tested a prerelease version of the service, but performance is something that Microsoft will want to boost if the service is to be truly valuable. The one sure reason you'll abandon a service, even one that's as useful and low-cost as MOLSB, is if you spend more time impatiently tapping your fingers on your desk than productively tapping them on your keyboard.

MOLSB now offers its features for up to five users at no charge; up to 70 more can be added for a monthly fee of $14.95 per month for 10 users total including the five free ones, $34.95 for 25 total users, $64.95 for 50 total users, and $84.95 for 75 total users. The service is currently supported by ads on your Office Live desktop, but don't worry -- they don't appear on the Web site you generate. You can turn off the ads by paying another $19.95 annually.

According to Microsoft, support via e-mail is available around the clock with responses within four hours. Telephone support is free for the first 30 days, with a paid option available after that.

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