All highlights are mine.—– From New York Times ——————————————–
State of the Art
A Web Site to Call Your Own
If you operate a small business, you might already use technology to conceal just how small you are — by setting up multiple e-mail addresses and phone extensions, for example (“for Asian operations, press 7”).
Unfortunately, the illusion that you’re a big, competent corporation evaporates the minute you reveal your Web address — and it’s http://hometown.aol.com/CaseyCorp/myhomepage/index.html.
So how do you get an actual domain name like CaseyCorp.com? You have to pay a registrar company around $10 a year for it. You might then pay another company a few bucks a month to “host” your Web site, and somebody else to design the Web pages themselves. For nontechnical people, it’s all an expensive headache. No wonder half of all small businesses don’t even have Web sites.
But starting Nov. 15, somebody will offer to pick up the entire bill. You’ll be able to pick any dot-com (or .net, or .org) Web address that hasn’t already been taken — no charge. You’ll get to design a Web site, complete with links, graphics, search boxes, tables, forms and navigation bars, and hang it on the Web for all to see — no charge. You’ll even get crystal-clear traffic reports whenever you want them, showing how many people are beating a path to your door — and still no charge.
So who’s your mysterious benefactor? A little outfit called Microsoft.
The service is called Office Live. Ignore the confusing name, which falsely implies some connection with Microsoft Office. Instead, Office Live is a suite of services, mostly free, to help the little guy get into the game of online sales and marketing. It’s intended for small businesses, but individuals can use it, too.
It’s a sweet suite (Internet Explorer for Windows required) that every small-business owner should investigate — quick, before somebody else snaps up the dot-com name you want.
The free Web site is the crown jewel, but there’s more to it than that. The free plan, known as Office Live Basics, also offers you 25 matching e-mail accounts (sales@caseycorp, litigation@caseycorp, and so on). You get a password-protected online calendar, too, and even free tech support by e-mail.
The Basics plan shakes up the status quo in another way, too, thanks to a free service called AdManager, now in beta testing. It lets even novices get into search-engine advertising — you know, so that your ads pop up when people use Google or Yahoo to search for something.
AdManager lets you specify a budget, say $100 a month, and walks you through deciding which search terms (keywords) will bring up your ad. At the moment, you can place ads only on Microsoft’s own search sites, MSN Search and Live.com. Microsoft says, however, that it is working with Google, Yahoo and other search sites, which it will add to the options soon after the introduction.
Later, AdManager’s analysis tools show how many clicks each of your keywords attracted and from which search sites, so that you can decide which were the most effective.
If you’re still printing brochures and coupons (and not tracking the response rates), this is an incredible tool. The world has gone electronic, and AdManager represents a free, self-service means of playing the search-engine advertising game. (Your alternative is paying monthly fees to search-engine management services.)
The free account also includes a brand-new program called Office Accounting Express, a basic, very simple accounting program. It’s designed for what Microsoft calls the 80 percent of small businesses that keep their books in shoeboxes, or on Excel spreadsheets or Quicken.
Accounting Express is no QuickBooks. But it does have useful links to PayPal, eBay, credit card companies and payroll servicing companies — all features, once again, made to let small-time operators play in the big leagues without hiring consultants or system administrators.
Considering the price (free), these are shockingly useful services. On the face of it, they look like an insane giveaway by a company not especially known for generosity. What, exactly, is Microsoft up to?
Microsoft makes no pretense: Office Live is intended to make money. But it will do so very cleverly, sometimes almost invisibly.
For example, if you do sign up for a payroll service through Accounting Express, Microsoft gets a cut. When you place search-engine ads with MSN Search, Microsoft gets a few cents per customer response for that, too.
In the free Basics plan, big, blinky banner ads appear above the e-mail center and address book module. (To its credit, Microsoft places nothing on your free Web site except a very small “Powered by Office Live” logo beneath your home page. No ads or logos appear on any other pages you create.)
Finally, Microsoft hopes that if it helps your business along enough, you’ll eventually upgrade your free account to one of the more elaborate paid plans.
For example, Office Live Essentials ($20 a month) adds the ability for you to design your Web site offline, using specialized programs like Dreamweaver, rather than using the flexible but essentially prefab design templates available to the free Basics service.
The Essentials program also doubles the amount of Web space (to one gigabyte) and the number of e-mail addresses (to 50), adds free 24-hour phone help, removes banner ads from the Mail page, and offers 10 simple online programs for tracking projects, sales and company information. The Premium plan ($40 a month) offers more of everything. Both paid plans let you set up “workspaces”— private mini-sites for communication and collaboration with, for example, your suppliers.
To many analysts, the significance of Office Live isn’t the small-business tools; it’s Microsoft’s big step into the new world of Web-based software. Surely, the gurus say, this is the future of software. Imagine: No viruses! Instant upgrades! Access from any PC in the world!
Well, O.K. But you could just as easily argue: Can’t get to it when your connection’s down! Can’t work on the plane! Working on a Web site is slow and blinky!
Actually, Microsoft has thought this part through. The paid plans include two-way synchronization of your e-mail, calendar and address book with a copy of Outlook on your own PC. Whenever you can get online, your computer and Office Live bring each other up to date.
Even the data generated by the business programs online (sales tracking, inventory and so on) are brought home to your PC in the form of self-updating Excel spreadsheets.
The finished Office Live is light-years better than the clunky beta version that Microsoft says 175,000 small businesses have been testing. Before, you were painfully aware that you were using a Web site; designing your Web pages, for example, wasn’t so much drag-and-drop as wait-and-blink. Now it feels like a proper desktop layout program.
Still, there are kinks. Lots of software bits have to be downloaded and installed. There are design oddities, too. In particular, the mail and online calendar screens are bizarrely unrelated to the design and navigation of the rest of Office Live; you feel like you’ve been shunted off to a different Web site entirely.
Some of the tools are embarrassingly bare-bones. In the calendar, for example, you can’t reschedule an appointment by dragging it to a different date, or lengthen one by dragging its edge, as you can on Google’s free online calendar.
There are bigger concerns, too. What happens if Microsoft someday decides to pull the plug?
Not a problem. You actually own the domain name you choose, and can transfer it to any other Web-hosting company whenever you like. As for your online data: remember that with the paid plans, it’s always safely mirrored on your local computers.
Finally, there’s the fear factor: some business owners have a nagging worry about entrusting the critical and confidential workings of their businesses to anyone else, let alone Microsoft.
Microsoft makes vigorous privacy promises, but there’s no countering this emotional argument. If the creepiness of letting someone else host your data outweighs Office Live’s enormous value, then that’s the end of the conversation.
But if you have a small business — if you run a dance studio, sell hand-made bracelets on eBay, deal in old comic books, whatever — at least have the conversation. In Office Live, Microsoft has vaporized a number of obstacles that once stood between tiny start-ups and the big time: the cost and hassle of establishing a proper Web site, the complexity and expense of playing the search-engine ad game, and the headache of maintaining proper books.
Best of all, Microsoft makes money from all this in only one situation: if it helps turn your small business into a bigger one.