Small businesses that use Microsoft to host their websites and e-mail accounts may be in for a harsh shock come May. At the end of April, Microsoft is replacing its free e-mail and website-hosting service, Microsoft Office Live Small Business (OLSB), with Office 365, a paid productivity service introduced in June 2011.
Businesses that don’t transfer their data before the deadline, whether to the new service or to another provider, will lose it forever.
Online forums on the topic are buzzing with wide-ranging complaints about the transition. For one, small-business users say they don’t need and can’t afford the additional features offered by Office 365. They have also expressed concerns about the cost and the hassle of transitioning, since Microsoft will not automate the switch to 365. And some say they fear their page views will suffer from the transition.
But above all, users allege that Microsoft hasn’t done enough to alert them to the move. “As I use my website as a showcase rather than a selling tool, I rarely visit OLSB, and so it came as some surprise when I came across this news of shutdown/transfer,” wrote one user on a Microsoft forum.
Microsoft first told customers it would be switching over in October 2010. A company spokesperson said Microsoft has alerted users via e-mail, online forums, and notifications on the service itself.
But some companies only recently noticed the alerts. Denise Sasaki, owner of 2nd Leash on Life, a pet-supply business based in Seattle, doesn’t remember seeing an e-mail or a notification. She says she only found out about the switch when she clicked on a link advertising Office 365.
Once she was aware of the move, her concerns shifted to cost and the time and care required to transition. “There’s just me, so it was really difficult,” Sasaki says. “It is very time-consuming when you’re the only person running the store.”
All told, the switch to her new provider, Go Daddy, took about 10 hours, spread over the course of a month. In part that’s because it took several days and authorizations to transfer her domain name. But she was also bogged down by her limited expertise, she says. The 10-hour switch “is probably goofy for a little website, but I don’t know what I’m doing,” says Sasaki. “I don’t have money to pay a tech expert either, so I knew it had to be me.”
Now that she has transitioned, Sasaki hasn’t been able to set up the sales function on her website — not because her new provider doesn’t have the capacity, but because she doesn’t have the time. Her e-mail was also shut down for several days while she transitioned. Though she found other ways to communicate by planning ahead, the process was a hassle, she says.
“Being a small business, and I’m new, it took a lot of my valuable hours to sit there and try to play with this and get it halfway done,” Sasaki says. “I have some kind of website up, but it’s not to my satisfaction. But I really don’t have time at the moment to pay attention to fixing it the way I’d like.”
Since companies will have to make peace with their options — switch to Office 365 or find another provider by April 30 — they should begin to prepare for some possible pitfalls. Among them is the risk that companies that use web analytics services like Google Analytics or Webtrends will leave computer code behind. These services typically embed code on websites to collect data about page views and unique visitors.
Companies may even have to change the code itself if they switch to new providers, Stanhope says. “They might have to make adjustments to how those tags work, to make sure they’re still collecting all the data that were on the previous website,” he says.
With this in mind, companies should keep a close eye on their performance after the switch. “Take a look at those web analytics as soon as the new system comes online and compare how the site’s behaving to what you’ve seen in the past,” Stanhope advises. “If [the numbers] all of a sudden drop off, that could be an indicator that something has gone wrong in the transition.”
Microsoft provides more information, including a self-transition guide and online support, on its website. The company has also pitched several of its partners to those who want an automated transition to 365. CloudVisors will do the job for $199. OLSB users can use Office 365 for free for six months, and then they will have to pay $6 per month, per user.