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Summary:

Microsoft earlier this week at CeBIT 2009 rolled out its Online Services feature to 19 new countries (it has been available in the U.S. since November last year). Online Services is part of Microsoft’s “Software + Services” strategy, with cloud-based services complementing local software functionality. So […]

Microsoft earlier this week at CeBIT 2009 rolled out its Online Services feature to 19 new countries (it has been available in the U.S. since November last year). Online Services is part of Microsoft’s “Software + Services” strategy, with cloud-based services complementing local software functionality.

So is Microsoft Online Services a viable option for web workers? As the UK is now included in the list of countries it’s available in, and there is a 30-day free trial, I thought I’d take it for a spin and see.

Online Services offers access to a range of products. The Business Productivity Online Suite is basically a hosted version of Exchange Server, SharePoint Server and Live Meeting, available for a subscription fee of £10 ($14) per user, per month in the UK.

The collaborative features of SharePoint and Live Meeting, in particular, are very good and might be handy for web workers with distributed teams, especially if your team members are used to using Microsoft products. However, the upfront costs of the standalone products — running into the thousands — are hugely off-putting for any small business or independent web worker, so a monthly subscription is attractive.

The first step is to get signed up with an administrator account. The experience here could be better. Rather than simple registration, you have to jump through numerous hoops. Particularly annoying is the compulsory password reset. Be prepared for a lot of form-filling and jumping from screen to screen.

Once you’ve managed to get signed up, you’ll find Online Services fairly easy to use, especially if you’ve used any of the standalone products before. Administration of user accounts is straightforward, and setting up a new site collection in SharePoint is simple. However, I found the admin experience to be quite sluggish, with some frustrating delays.

Online Services admin

Online Services administration

Once your users are set up, email, calendaring and contacts become available, either though Outlook or Outlook Web Access, and they can start working with any SharePoint site collections that you have set up. Microsoft recommends each user downloading a special Sign-In tool, as without it you’ll have to keep re-entering your username and password.

From a users’ point of view, the apps served by Online Services run reasonably fast — the delays that I experienced as an administrator were not evident while using Outlook Web Access, for example.

Outlook Web Access

Outlook Web Access

SharePoint is an excellent browser-based collaboration tool, and it works well when served by Online Services. You can use it to run an entire intranet, including wikis, blogs, messaging, event calendars and shared document repositories. It’s a very powerful and flexible solution, and, again, seemed reasonably fast in my test.

SharePoint

SharePoint

If you’re looking for a collaboration solution for your distributed team, you might like to check out Online Services, particularly if your team members are used to working with SharePoint or you have a client who’s looking for Microsoft solutions. The cost is not prohibitive, it’s quite easy to use and the services work well.

However, for smaller companies and teams, Online Services is probably overkill, and there are plenty of other services that provide similar functionality — Google Apps for domains and Zoho, for example — that might be cheaper or more suitable.

Would you use Online Services?

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