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Office Live: Big-company computing for small businesses

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There appear to be plenty of answers to the question “Who invented the computer”. The ancient Chinese had the abacus, and the great British scientist and inventor Charles Babbage created an adding machine which also deserves the title, but was far less portable.

You might not know the name Douglas Engelbart, but he’s probably responsible for you looking at this page now. Before Douglas, computers required enormous technical knowledge to operate. He threw away the rulebook and invented the Graphical User Interface (or GUI), and a mouse to go with it. It’s thanks to Douglas we can point and click instead of telling our PC’s what to do using lines of code.

Other essential inventions which bring us to you reading this article today are networking and the internet (thanks to sterling gentlemen like Leonard Kleinrock and Tim Berners-Lee).

Making business easier

So why the history lesson? All these inventions have made doing business with computers easier- in giant strides. In the past five years, for example, you’ve probably used the internet to research clients, buy products for your office from suppliers you didn’t even know existed, and send messages in seconds instead of days.

Right now, the next wave of online business services is under way, and it’s as deserving of the term “historic” as anything that has gone before. Hype? Not at all- because it allows small businesses to work- and look- like big businesses in a way they could not before.

Not surprisingly, it’s the internet- and the way it connects people and information- which is responsible. Only now, instead of web pages or music, whole business functions can be delivered online, through your trusty internet browser.

Benefits of Office Live

Office Live uses the internet to do a host of useful things for your business- here are just a few:

Building and managing a website

Collaborating with suppliers, clients and partners

Managing diaries, sales prospects and projects

Handling email

Even as a small business, you might have made a start on these with your desktop PC. But online management has several big advantages:

Reliability. Office Live is backed by Microsoft’s computing power. If you’ve ever lost files because your computer crashed, you’ll understand that online services offer a technical quality assurance far above the reliability of your home or office PC.

Accessibility. We don’t want you working on holiday. But if you do need to check the progress of a project from Pretoria, that’s no longer a problem. Head for the nearest internet caf�, and you’re as good as connected to your desk.

Simplicity. Building a website by yourself used to be hard work. With Office Live, you can get a domain (like www.mycompanyname.co.uk) and design a site from a selection of elegant templates in a matter of a couple of hours.

Besides, the world of business is now all about sharing. Office Live allows you to keep documents in a safe place online, with password access to the people who need it. With Office Live, you can share documents with clients in their own private area; or allow your staff access to work on documents at home.

You can also restrict access securely- perhaps those pay scales or employment histories could be kept somewhere more secure than a filing cabinet?

The connected office: an idea whose time has come

If you’re wondering why it’s taken so long for the computer industry to provide online services for small companies, don’t blame them- it’s not their fault. In the UK, around 80% of companies are sole traders. The computer trade is hardly going to ignore such a large chunk of the business marketplace!

There were three big problems. The first was an internet which was slow. That’s been solved by broadband access: you’re probably reading this on a 1, 2, or even 8MB broadband line. Some of you will be enjoying up to 24MB- more than enough to ship files in and out of the office with impunity.

The second problem was having to learn a new way of working. Large companies have had online systems for quite a while- but they had to pay specialised staff specialised salaries to use them! Office Live functions in an ordinary web browser, and looks very much like most of the Windows applications you’re used to; like MSN Messenger. You don’t need any special training, and if you do push the wrong button… well, just go back and have another go- you won’t break anything. All that makes using Office Live easy.

The third problem was cost. Online services were bespoke- built to order, and with a price tag to match. When Office Live launches in the UK, the basic domain, website and email will be free and additional services will typically cost less than you’d pay for most mobile phone tariffs; and unlike many mobile phone tariffs will be simple and predictable.

Office Live in depth

Signing up to Office Live opens up a raft of business services straight to your desktop. In the five-minute signup process, you will get yourself a domain name, and with it five email addresses and 30MB of online storage space; all ready for use immediately and completely free. It’s perfectly possible for you to have a functioning website live to the world in only a few hours- perfect for those business ideas you just can’t wait to get out into the public eye.

Don’t worry if you’re neither a Michelangelo nor a Shakespeare. Creating your web pages is easy with a selection of pre-defined templates and helpful hints on creating engaging text.

Your email will naturally be tied to your domain name (so your own email address can be john@mycompanyname.co.uk), and accessible from anywhere in the world. There are additional Office Live email benefits too; for example the “Outlook Connector” which links your Office Live email account to your desktop Microsoft Outlook, so that email, calendars and to-do lists are kept permanently in-sync.

Now it’s time to get organised. Office Live gives small businesses the collaborative tools to get the job done. Keep track of:

Sales and prospects, from initial contact through to providing after-sales support.

Diaries and calendars, for yourself and your staff or associates

Projects, delivery schedules and plans All your HR, including expenses, training, working hours and job details

All your HR, including expenses, training, working hours and job details

And remember of course, that you can open these lists and tracking tools to everyone in your company who needs them. In fact, you can create customised “Views” of projects, so even your clients can dip in and check on progress.

In all, Office Live gives small companies a suite of online tools to better manage all aspects of the business, from sales to HR, at a price even one-man businesses can afford.

What next?

Yours can be one of the first companies to experience Office Live: the Office Live UK Beta starts in late 2006. We have also lined up experienced support staff to help you on your way.

The free Office Live Basics service includes online help and email support with an option to add-on telephone support. The other Office Live subscription packages will include free telephone support.

To register your interest, please visit www.officelive.co.uk.

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