If it's free, there's a catch, right? That's certainly been the experience of US businesses who signed up for Microsoft's Office Live beta program. Office Live — which, in spite of its name, isn't an online version of Microsoft Office but simply a small business domain hosting and website package — came out of beta in the US on November 15th last year. The new release added a number of new features, as well as setting prices for premium versions that have been free during the beta.
The catch is that everyone who signed up during the beta program is still waiting for their account to be upgraded to the new version, with no firm date yet set for the upgrade. According to ipwalk's independent figures, this affects almost 190,000 accounts that signed up for Office Live domains by mid-November.
Here's a message posted to the Office Live community site on Nov 30th by Microsoft's Filiberto Selvas that revealed their limbo status:
"As most of you know on November 15 2006 we launched a new version of Office Live; however launching and migrating existing users to the new version are two different things. As we got going with migration (using test accounts) we found that we needed further tweaks and testing on the process. We anticipate moving customer accounts over to the new release of Office Live in the late January - early February time frame. Once we begin, we plan on moving Office Live Beta customer accounts over in batches, a process which could take a few months.
"I wish we could do it faster; but we want to make sure it works well. If we can accelerate the process we will, I will keep you updated."
Adding insult to injury, certain features in the beta version have been disabled until the transition takes place, including backup/restore and Frontpage editing. More detail here.
What's especially galling is that users can't simply sign up for the new version without losing their existing domains. In order to prevent abuse of the free domain registration and hosting offer, Office Live is strictly limited to one account per credit card, and one domain per account. It's not even possible to free up the domain by canceling the beta account. Office Live still treats it as taken. Hence the assorted squeals of frustration posted to the Office Live community board over the past few weeks:
"Hey Office Live team, How would you like to be in limbo in your job or project for two months. The solution is as I suggested - 'opt-out'. Allow us to opt-out of auto conversion ... So, take the time now and fix that so we can move forward. The issue will not go away!!!"
"It would be polite to know how the migration is coming along. What is fixed what they are working on? Not just end of January beginning of February."
"For business operation, this kind of uncertainty is almost not acceptable. Can we start a new account using released version and forget about beta version? If migration all beta user website is so painful, can all beta user be accepted to have same domain name in the new version instead of sitting in the trap of beta version?"
This awkward transition process for beta users isn't a good sign of the future prospects for Office Live, which after all is supposed to be the flagship small business offering of Microsoft's Live initiative. Equally telling is that there haven't been more complaints, suggesting that the majority of Office Live subscribers are not that bothered either way — hardly a resounding endorsement of their enthusiasm for the service. If Office Live is going to make an impact in the market, then it'll have to generate passion among users, rather than indifference.
Meanwhile, a number of webmasters who've been advertising on MSN Live Search using Microsoft's new adCenter service have been dismayed to discover they're being automatically migrated onto the beta program for adCenter's Content Ads pilot. This will mean their contextual ads will automatically start running on various Microsoft content sites, and although it's possible to opt out, this can only be done by manually deselecting the option for individual campaigns — most advertisers have dozens and many have hundreds, making this a laborious and time-consuming unwanted task.
Taken together, these episodes demonstrate that Microsoft is making its moves into on-demand services with the usual arrogant mindset associated with conventional software vendors. Instead of thinking through what's best for customers and implementing its services accordingly, Microsoft is putting its own development priorities and the needs of the technology first. I've described the move to on-demand services as a journey of discovery for software vendors. Microsoft is still taking its first faltering steps. The company has a whole lot more to learn before it will be able to execute competitively against its on-demand rivals.