Microsoft was handing out press accounts to Office Live Premium about a week ago, so we're tinkering with it. We'll do the hands-on part somewhere else, but it's worth discussing Microsoft's strategy here. Bottom line: This is the best New Economy, Web 2.0 Internet move I've seen Microsoft make in a long time.
Until I saw Office Live, I thought that all of Microsoft's Web services efforts had a serious "We're-chasing-Google" flavor to them. Google does a cool Webmail service; Microsoft runs Hotmail through the Web 2.0 sausage grinder and pumps out the Windows Live Mail knackwurst. Instant messenger, Virtual Earth, OneCare -- all very similar in that all of them seemed to be answers to someone else's new ideas.
Office Live is the first real step I've seen Microsoft take on its own here. Redmond's not thinking about matching Google's Writely/Spreadsheet almost-useful bundle; it's doing what Microsoft does best: hunting for profit. First thing Microsoft does when it's looking for yet another percentage of the world economy is ask customers what they're willing to pay for.
So the company asked thousands of its small-business customers what they'd actually use in a Web service architecture. Good move, because it turns out that Word 97 in a browser wasn't high on the list. What was high on the list was a one-stop shop for Web-oriented business needs: e-mail and Web hosting. Done.
Even the earliest versions of Office Live supported a new e-mail client and custom domain hosting. Office Live just carries that forward. Fifty e-mail accounts using your own domain name, each with 2GB of mailbox space and that same domain name attached to a Web site. On top of that, Microsoft has added tools: shared calendars, shared contacts, the ability to click between Office Live and Outlook. On the Web side, you get a funky Web design toolkit. Stay tuned for more on that in the hands-on review, but in the meantime, think templates. Lots of templates.
Sharing and team management are next. Microsoft again does what Microsoft has always done: Leverage existing technology. Although Windows Live Meeting is becoming venerable, the last couple of years have seen Microsoft do serious work on the collaboration front. Groove, SharePoint 2.0 and 3.0, and virtual meeting spaces, to name a few. Office Live simply leveraged that technology and turned it into Workspaces. So far, this doesn't seem to talk to Groove, which is a move I don't understand, but on the upside, it does allow you to put together customer or team collaboration spaces solely from the browser. Collaboration: Check.