Tuesday, May 15, 2007

What is (right and) wrong with Microsoft Office Live Basics

Summary: Learn what Microsoft Office Live Basics will -- and will not -- do for you.

When I first heard that Microsoft had started offering free Web site hosting along with domain name registration via the Office Live Basics program, I couldn't believe it. A typical domain name registration costs about $10/year, plus a decent cheap hosting service charges at least $5/month, plus setup fees, multiply these by the number of cheapskates looking for a free ride to Web presence, and we're not talking pennies. Why did Microsoft become so generous all of a sudden? What's the catch?

I've heard some theories, but I'll spare you from rumors and speculations and just address the technical part. How good is the service? Not having a clear picture how the program worked, I decided to try it myself.

[Some background: I found Microsoft Office Live when I was researching options for building and hosting a Web site for my wife's church. Since post-deployment support would be done by non-technical people, a template-based site with a WYSIWYG editor became a very desirable feature. At some point, the Web site building effort took a different track, but I was already in second gear, so I went on and used Office Live Basics to create a personal Web site (I did not really need one; just wanted to use something for testing). UPDATE: As of March 1, 2010, my personal web site is taken off-line due to expiration of the free domain name registration, which I did not want to extend for a fee.]

In a nutshell, the process goes like this. First, you need to register (online). A credit card number is required for registration, but unless you upgrade to a paid version of Office Live, the card will not be charged (or the charge will be reimbursed). Then you need to select a domain name and Microsoft will registers it with the help of an Australian affiliate. Notice that your registration information including your name, address, and phone number will become a public record available via the WHOIS services. Once the registration process is complete, you can start building the site.

The free Basics package gives you 500 MB of storage and 10 GB of bandwidth (per month), a number of page templates, ability to host images, several e-mail accounts, reporting tools, and other features intended for a small business. I was only interested in the Web site design capabilities and hosting options, so I will discuss just these two things.

What is good
The service is really free (at least for now). The registration process is simple. Template-based design makes it easy to make changes to common elements (headers, footers). No knowledge of HTML is needed. Being able to host images on the same site is nice. Page and site editing tools are reasonably simple and intuitive.

What is bad
First, Office Live did not accept my .NET Passport credentials, and forced me to create a separate Windows Live ID associated with my new domain account. I would rather prefer to use my existing credentials.

Second, while the number of available templates is not very small (for a free service), the available color schemes raise suspicion that they have been put together by a color-blind. Really, the color combination of most schemes is plain ugly. Template customization options are very limited; you cannot modify HTML or customize styles (CSS). A wider range of themes would be welcome. I could upload GIF and PNG images, but when displayed on a page, they looked worse than the originals (JPEG images were OK). I can be wrong, but I suspect that uploaded images undergo some sort of conversion on the back end.

Third (and probably most important), Web design capabilities of Office Live Basics are really basic. HTML editing is not supported in any shape or form, period. It wouldn't be as bad if only the WYSIWYG editor were a bit more intelligent. For example, the editor allows you to create a table, but there is no way to define vertical alignment of the table elements. It's impossible to set column widths, row heights, and other basic HTML tag attributes. Aligning images (and other elements) is very difficult. Anything beyond basic design (such as spanning table cells) can result in a page that will appear corrupted in Firefox (and I suspect in other non-IE browsers). While the editor is simple, such operations as docking elements on the page to the proper spots can take time to master.

Finally, if you decide to switch to a different hosting service, moving domain name can take a few days.

Depending on your needs, you may be able to live with these limitations, but unless you're satisfied with a really basic Web design, you will probably be disappointed.

Additional references:
Microsoft Office Live Common Questions
The .NET Show: Office Live
Review: Microsoft Office Live basics Vs. Google Apps for your domain
Free domain name, free web host, free Email and free web tools at MS Office Live (beta)
Office Live: Better Off Dead?

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