The Microsoft Office Live beta is expected to go live any day now.

Office Live is not a hosted version of Microsoft Office. Instead, it is a set of software services Microsoft is developing as extensions to its shrink-wrapped Office product.

Microsoft introduced the Office Live concept in November last year, at the same time as it rolled out its Windows Live strategy. Company officials said at that time to expect a first beta of Office Live in early 2006.

Microsoft sent invitations the first week of January to testers the company had selected to participate in initial Office Live testing, according to the LiveSide Weblog — an independent site dedicated to tracking Microsoft's Live efforts.

The first Office Live beta is expected to be available for U.S.-based participants running Windows XP and Office 2000 or later versions of Microsoft's desktop operating system and Office suite.

"In case you didn't get one, Office Live pre-beta emails were sent out at the end of last week," according to a LiveSide posting by Chris, a UK-based student. "Promising "a free Web site with your own domain name, free hosting, online business applications, e-mail and more" along with easy access to "'your company e-mail, customer and project information from almost any Internet-connected computer' this is one Live service that is definitely not targeted at the home consumer."

Microsoft is pitching Office Live primarily as a small-business play. From the initial descriptions of the service by Office Live team members last year, it sounds as if Microsoft will be repackaging a number of the small-business services the company initially marketed via its bCentral Web site, and later, its Microsoft Small Business Web site, and marketing those as Office Live properties.

Another posting on the LiveSide site by MSN Most Valuable Professional (MVP) "jkipk" contends that Microsoft will be incorporating some of the features of its Small Business Accounting product and Windows Live Domains service into Office Live.

Jkipk also said Microsoft would likely offer a "package deal (involving Small Business Accounting, Windows Live Domains and Office Live) for small businesses looking to make better use of their computing power."

"Of course there are tools available to do the kinds of things that Office Live proposes to do already, but it's almost a full time job to find them, cobble them together, and make them work. In the real world, for a small business, there just isn't that kind of time," JKipk added.

In November, at its Live services rollout, Microsoft outlined its initial plans for Office Live packaging. At that time, company officials said Microsoft expected to field three versions of Office Live: Basics, Essentials and Collaboration.

Office Live Basics will be an ad-supported, free set of services that would allow small businesses to establish a digital identity, obtain a company domain name, host a Web site via 30 megabytes of storage, get five e-mail accounts, and use a Web design and Web analytics tool to build and analyze their sites.

Office Live Essentials, as outlined by Microsoft, will include many of these same features, plus 50 e-mail accounts, Microsoft FrontPage support, and "a range of hosted small business applications to automate daily business tasks, such as customer management, project management and document management." Microsoft officials said the hosted services could work on their own, without Microsoft Office. This level of services would likely be paid and subscription-based.

Office Live Collaboration will be a completely hosted set of offerings that are managed and maintained by Microsoft. Among the offerings: Customer management, project management, document management, and a private SharePoint meeting site. Microsoft would likely make these services paid and subscription-based.

It is not clear whether Microsoft will start out by testing the Basics versions only, or if it will be fielding right away test versions of the various Office Live SKUs. Microsoft officials have declined to discuss Office Live since its initial rollout last year.

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